L.A. Times: Don’t use words like ‘biggest’ or ‘most’ without proof

The Los Angeles Times updated its newsroom ethics policy, and while some of its provisions reflect its geographic location — “The entertainment industry is a central area of our coverage, and staff members must take special care not to create the appearance of conflicts should they seek work in that industry” — they’re worth reading for anyone at any newsroom.

The guidelines also venture into the realm of word choice:

Superlatives such as “biggest,” “worst” and “most” should be employed only when the writer has proof. It is the responsibility of assigning editors and copy editors to challenge all questionable claims. The burden of proof rests with the writer; it is not the desk’s responsibility to prove the writer wrong.

It is unacceptable to hedge an unverified or unverifiable assertion with words such as “arguably” or “perhaps.” Our job is to report what is true, not what might be.

And tone:

There are instances when hyperbole or sarcasm may be used for comic or literary effect. Columnists may use those devices to make a point, as may humorists. Such techniques should be employed with care.

And they take a hard line on sharing drafts before publication.

We do not circulate printed or electronic copies of stories outside the newsroom before publication. In the event you would like to read back quotations or selected passages to a source to ensure accuracy, consult an editor before doing so.

A couple years ago, draft-sharing became A Thing after Daniel de Vise, then a Washington Post reporter, sent drafts of a story to a source. Former Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli banned the practice, except in some cases. Reached by email, current Post Executive Editor Marty Baron said, “The policy remains the same.”

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  • Benjamin Israel

    One other often misused superlative is first. Not long ago, the St. Louis American printed a letter to the editor I wrote that corrected an obituary that claimed that the deceased was the first African-American optometrist in St. Louis. I wrote of two that preceded him by decades. A few years back, the Post-Dispatch several times called the St. Louis Argus the first African-American newspaper in St; Louis confusing the fact that it is the oldest with the fact that at least half a dozen other earlier papers have folded. It’s easy to confirm, for example, that Joe Biden is the first Catholic vice president because the list of US vice presidents is quite limited and easy to check, Most firsts are harder to pin down.Even with limited universes to check, finding the first can be tricky. Is Sonia Sotomayor the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, or was it Benjamin Cardozo? It depends on how you define Hispanic.