NPR handbook offers accuracy tips for all news orgs, including ‘errors are inevitable’

NPR’s newly released Ethics Handbook contains all of the important, if obvious, affirmations about accuracy and accountability you expect to see in a document outlining standards and basic practices.

At NPR, “Accuracy is at the core of what we do.” Still, they acknowledge, “Errors are inevitable.”

Yes, good. But a true handbook needs to go beyond statements of principle and offer useful advice and guidance for turning ethics and values into newsroom reality.

In that respect, I’m happy to say there is meat on the bones of the new NPR Ethics Handbook. It points to useful tips and tools for accuracy and verification, offers two mini case studies of previous NPR reporting, and delivers clear guidance on how NPR journalists should report errors and help correct them.

Much of what’s in the document is universal, making the Ethics Handbook a useful resource for any journalist.

Here’s a look at some of the accuracy tips it offers:

  • On the importance of specificity: “We shouldn’t put ourselves in a position where we believe the thrust of a statement is correct and supported by the facts, but the statement is open to question because we didn’t express it with enough precision.”
  • On reminding editors to collaborate with reporters to check and reconfirm facts and statements: “Good editors are also good prosecutors. They test, probe and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.”
  • On using an accuracy checklist: the handbook outlines several questions journalists should ask themselves (and answer) before submitting their work. (They also kindly point to my accuracy checklist, which is a free download.) I particularly like how the handbook adapts common checklist items to work for their dual radio/Web reporting. For example, here’s one item: “Is every name and title correctly spelled? (And, in the case of radio, correctly pronounced according to either the subject himself or someone else with direct knowledge of how to say it?)”
  • On the importance of attribution: “When in doubt, err on the side of attributing — that is, make it very clear where we’ve gotten our information (or where the organization we give credit to has gotten its information). Every NPR reporter and editor should be able to immediately identify the source of any facts in our stories — and why we consider them credible. And every reader or listener should know where we got our information. ‘Media reports’ or ‘sources say’ is not good enough. Be specific.”
  • On handling information that’s spreading online: “The general standard is simple: Tweet and retweet as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a ‘traditional’ NPR.org news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or ‘knocking down,’ provide it.”
  • On presenting data accurately: “It’s easy to represent data inaccurately or misleadingly, especially in charts and infographics. Double-check your numbers and the way you portray them to make sure you’re imparting the proper information.”
  • On encouraging NPR staff to report errors: “If you have good reason to think NPR got something wrong on the air or online — or that there was a serious defect in a report — you have an affirmative responsibility to speak up. The first stop should be your supervisor. If the supervisor does not think that a mistake was made, but you disagree, talk it over with the Standards and Practices Editor (or email Ethics). NPR journalists who come to their supervisors in good faith should have no concerns about stepping forward.”

There’s plenty more useful advice, including tips for ensuring visual accuracy, advice about seeking a diversity of sources to achieve accuracy, and how to guard against subjective errors.

Case Studies

The first case study in the handbook retells the basics of the events that led NPR to mistakenly report the death of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. It lists four bullet points outlining “where we went wrong.” Here are two that reinforce the need for primary sources, and to have the right people involved in the process:

  • We did not wait to get confirmation from any of the “primary” sources that must be contacted before reporting an individual’s death: the person’s family (or a family spokesman) and officials (if they have direct knowledge and are authorized to speak) at the hospital.
  • Senior NPR editors were not properly drawn into the decision-making process before the news was broadcast. Involving them in the decision-making would have slowed things down — exactly what was needed at that moment, as an offset to our natural instinct to want to be “timely” with important news.

If the Giffords error is an example of how things went wrong at NPR, then the case study about the 2011 attacks in Norway highlights what NPR did right. In this example, NPR emphasized the importance of offering listeners and readers a clear picture of what was and wasn’t confirmed, and being strict about attributing information:

On the air and online on July 22, 2011, when an explosion in Oslo was followed by reports of a gunman attacking a youth conference on a nearby island, we were careful to report only what we could reasonably assure listeners and readers was the best, most authoritative information at the time. We reminded them many times that events were unfolding rapidly and that there was much that wasn’t known. As information changed, we explained what was new. And we provided attribution for every important detail.

That’s a paragraph worth spreading. It shows you can cover breaking news in a way that communicates the fluid, and unconfirmed, nature of events, while still delivering value by focusing on what is known about the origin of the information.

Additional reading: Poynter.org’s Mallary Tenore wrote an overview of the handbook and how it came about. Jeff Sonderman wrote a summary of what the handbook says about NPR’s social media guidelines.

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