Accuracy Tips


Bullying is not on the rise and it does not lead to suicide

Every other month or so a story about a child bullied until he or she commits suicide rises into our national consciousness.

This month it’s Rebecca Sedwick from Lakeland, Fla.

Before that it was Gabrielle Molina of Queens. And before that it Asher Brown.

All suicides are tragic and complicated. And teen suicides are particularly devastating because as adults we recognize all that lost potential.

Yet, in perpetuating these stories, which are often little more than emotional linkbait, journalists are complicit in a gross oversimplification of a complicated phenomenon. In short, we’re getting the facts wrong.

The common narrative goes like this: Mean kids, usually the most popular and powerful, single out and relentlessly bully a socially weaker classmate in a systemic and calculated way, which then drives the victim into a darkness where he or she sees no alternative other than committing suicide.

And yet experts – those who study suicide, teen behavior and the dynamics of cyber interactions of teens – all say that the facts are rarely that simple. And by repeating this inaccurate story over and over, journalists are harming the public’s ability to understand the dynamics of both bullying and suicide.

People commit suicide because of mental illness. It is a treatable problem and preventable outcome. Bullying is defined as an ongoing pattern of intimidation by a child or teenager over others who have less power.

Yet when journalists (and law enforcement, talking heads and politicians) imply that teenage suicides are directly caused by bullying, we reinforce a false narrative that has no scientific support. In doing so, we miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide.

There is no scientific evidence that bullying causes suicide. None at all. Lots of teenagers get bullied (between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 teenagers report being bullied in real life, fewer report being bullied online). Very few commit suicide. Among the people who commit suicide, researchers have no good data on how many of them have been bullied.

It is journalistically irresponsible to claim that bullying leads to suicide. Even in specific cases where a teenager or child was bullied and subsequently commits suicide, it’s not accurate to imply the bullying was the direct and sole cause behind the suicide.

Reporters are often reacting to other misinformed authorities.  For example, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd explained to reporters that he arrested two girls (one 12, the other 14) in Sedwick’s death, after seeing a callous social media post from one of the girls, “We can’t leave her out there, who else is she going to torment? Who else is she going to harass? Who is the next person she verbally and mentally abuses and attacks?” While it’s a great quote, it implies that this girl has the ability, through random meanness, to inspire others to commit suicide.

“Everything we know about unsafe reporting is being done here – describing the method(s), the simplistic explanation (bullying = suicide), the narrative that bullies are the villains and the girl that died, the victim,” Wylie Tene, the public relations manager for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, wrote in an email to me. “She (the victim) is almost portrayed as a hero. Her smiling pictures are now juxtaposed with the two girls’ mug shots. Her parents are portrayed as doing everything right, and the other girls parents did everything wrong and are part of the problem. This may be all true, and it also may be more complicated.”

Sheriff Judd has a record of grandstanding for the media. Yet, journalists are running with his narrative, despite the fact that experts on bullying and on suicide are suggesting that there has to be more to the story.

What’s a journalist to do? Challenge the sheriff. Add more information to place his quotes in the appropriate context.

“Clearly allowing police to make statements about whether a bullying incident was the cause of the suicide is contrary to suicide reporting recommendations. He has no training to make this judgment,” said Dan Romer,  director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “It would have been good if those quotes had been put into context if they felt the need to include them.  At this point, the stories are a lot of hearsay.  So, it’s a shame that the girls are being identified.  But this sheriff is clearly on the warpath about this and he can get all the media attention he wants.”

Remember the story of Phoebe Prince, a young Irish immigrant attending South Hadley High School near Boston? After she committed suicide in 2009, several of her classmates were charged with a variety of crimes. Slate writer Emily Bazelon went back and documented exactly what happened to Prince in the months leading up to her death.

Bazelon described how several of the students were active or complicit in acts of meanness, including veiled references to Prince on Facebook and yelling at Prince from a car. But those acts hardly amounted to the relentless campaign that authorities described when they announced the investigation and charges. Instead, Bazelon’s story reveals a girl who was already experiencing mental illness when she arrived at South Hadley and stepped into an intricate and nuanced social reality that includes bad behavior as well as acts of compassion, sometimes by the same kids.

Bazelon has offered a cautionary approach to Sedwig’s story as well.

When faced with a story about bullying, especially one that involves teenage suicide, reporters can find resources designed to encourage reporting that informs and educates the public. recently published media guidelines designed to help journalists include research and resources in their stories that will add important context and avoid common pitfalls. (In 2012, I facilitated several meetings with a group of researchers and experts who advised the government on the creation of these guidelines.)

There are also helpful resources for journalists covering suicide.

While there are myriad mistakes that journalists make on these two issues, here are some of the most common ones:

  • Perpetuating falsehoods through hyperbole or by confusing anecdotes with facts, such as stating that cyber-bullying is on the rise or is an epidemic.
  • Implying that suicide is caused by a single factor, like a romantic breakup, a bad test score or being bullied.
  • Suggesting, or allowing others to suggest, that bullying is criminal behavior.
  • Allowing sources to reach beyond their anecdotal experience. Parents, teachers and school administrators are rarely qualified to describe research or trends.
  • Equating all teenage aggression as bullying, when in fact there is a specific definition that involves sustained behavior and a power imbalance.
  • Describing an act of suicide in vivid detail so that it creates a contagion effect among vulnerable populations.
  • Glorifying a suicide victim in saintly or heroic terms, which could also contribute to the spread of suicides.
  • Forgetting to link to local and national resources about suicide and bullying, including warning signs and strategies for intervention.

One reason these stories gain such traction is they are easy to sensationalize and they tap into a common narrative that children today are spinning out of control as a result of technology and popular culture. “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare,” the news stories and opinion pieces tell us.

By contrast, this Christian Science Monitor story seeks out experts and arms readers with research, facts and resources.

Reporters looking for more motivation to steer clear of the popular, yet erroneous narrative need only look at the way this story echoes through history. Whether it’s the proliferation of cars, rock n’ roll music on the radio, video games, cell phones, or social media, we find ways to demonize technology’s impact on the young people who embrace it with such enthusiasm. Over time, we look back and marvel at our own hysteria.

Bullying and suicide are serious problems. Journalists owe the public more than they are delivering. We owe the public the science and research. We owe the public the knowable facts. We owe the public the nuanced context of individual cases.

Anything less contributes to a misinformed society, which robs communities of the ability to bring about meaningful change.

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error in the name of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Read more


Reynolds Center for Business Journalism creates accuracy checklist for journalists

Here’s a little exercise for you.

Who is this man?

Yes, of course, it’s Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the hero pilot who landed a troubled airplane on the Hudson River back in 2009.

This one’s a bit more difficult. Who is this man?

That’s Jeff Skiles, the co-pilot.

I use this exercise in workshops (and blog posts), in part because it shows how history has room for only one man from that small cockpit. It also offers an unlikely opportunity for me to preach the virtues of the checklist.

While Sully was busy at the controls, Skiles was engaged in something just as important: he was using an engine restart checklist to ensure they followed the proper procedures. He also used a different checklist to help them land on water.

I’ve been preaching the value of checklists for years now. My primer on checklists is here, and you can download my free accuracy checklist here. I’ve also created a collection of other people’s checklists, which you can view and download.

If you really want to understand the value and amazing power of checklists, you should read “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande, and his related New Yorker piece.

Simply put, the checklist is the best error prevention tool. That truth makes me all the more happy to report that the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism has created and released a free accuracy checklist. (Disclosure: I previously wrote a bi-weekly column for the center’s website,

Linda Austin, executive director of the Reynolds Center, got in touch with me a little while back to ask for guidance on how to create a checklist.

“I was inspired to put this together after reading your posts for about your accuracy checklist and the value of checklists in other fields,” Austin told me by email. “At first, I thought I’d design one just for business journalists, but it seemed like many of the same issues applied to business journalists, as much as anyone else. Then the data from the Pew Research Center came out that only one-quarter of Americans say news outlets get the facts right, and I thought I’ve got to get this thing done and make it useful for everyone.”

Austin offers some additional background in this post. One thing I like about her checklist is that it advises journalists to print out their articles when checking them. Taking stories from the screen to the printed page is a great way to ensure you examine them with fresh eyes. I also like the “fairness and context” section near the bottom.

You can share feedback with Austin at or @LindaAustin_. Read more


Our brains resist correction, but there are ways to break through

It’s taken a couple of months, but the New America Foundation is in the process of releasing interesting and useful research papers created for a December fact-checking event hosted by the organization.

I wrote about that gathering, and one that preceded it at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in November. But there was a lot I couldn’t share from the December event, because it was held under Chatham House Rule, and the papers prepared for the gathering were not yet public. Now at least two of those papers are available for free.

Earlier this week, I linked to a fascinating paper that lays out the origins and current state of political fact checking. Now the paper I was most looking forward to has been released [PDF]. Best of all, Columbia Journalism Review adapted it into an article, “Countering Misinformation: Tips for Journalists.”

The paper is the work of two researchers, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. (Nyhan is also writing about the 2012 campaign for CJR.) They have been doing important work to help explain why people are susceptible to misinformation, and why it’s hard to convince us to change our minds once we’ve taken hold of a view. I dedicated two previous columns to research in this area.

The duo have also, critically, spent time and effort to try and learn the best ways to  combat and correct misinformation. The paper, and the CJR article, distill their work into nine tips for journalists.

You need to read the CJR article, if not the entire PDF. These are good, actionable tips. The first three items on the list relate directly to how you offer effective corrections to misinformation:

1. Get the story right the first time. Once an error is communicated and stored in people’s memories, it is difficult to undo. Even when people are exposed to a correction and acknowledge that the initial claim was false, the errant information may continue to influence their attitudes. In addition, people may misremember the false claim as true over time.

An obvious point, but please understand that this comes from the perspective of two researchers. They have data to back up the fact that it’s hard to convince people to change their minds. It’s hard to replace incorrect information with correct information inside our minds. Our brains, to a certain extent, resist correction. An important point.

2. Early corrections are better. News organizations should strive to correct their errors as quickly as possible and to notify the media outlets that disseminated them further. It is difficult to undo the damage from an initial error, but rapid corrections of online articles or video can ensure that future readers and other journalists are not misled.

This is an important reminder that we have a duty to promote corrections. If the story has been shared on social media and in other places, you need to spread the correction to those places — and fast. Contact people who retweeted the incorrect information and make sure they know you made a fix. Remember that the longer you wait, the more the incorrect information becomes entrenched in mediums and minds.

3. Beware making the problem worse. While prompt corrections are valuable, it’s important to recognize the risk that corrections can increase the prevalence of misperceptions. First, news reports seeking to correct a misperception may expose more people to false information and thereby increase belief in the myth rather than reduce it. Corrections may also increase the prevalence of a misperception if people who hold it are provoked to defend their prior beliefs. Finally, even if people initially accept that a given claim is false, they may suffer from an “illusion of truth” over time and come to believe that the claim is accurate. A careful balance must be struck between the desire to correct misperceptions and the risks of popularizing them further.

My takeaway: It matters how your correction is expressed. Emphasize the correct information, while also acknowledging your error. Put the focus on being clear about what’s right.

However, do not gloss over the error. A lack of transparency makes a correction less convincing. Be clear, be honest, and be focused on making sure anyone reading/viewing/hearing the information is getting the correct information. For written content, that means you need to fix the error in the copy and add a correction. Those two always go together.

Be sure to go read the six other suggestions. Read more


How The New York Times’ corrections tracker improves accuracy

How do you handle a reporter who’s making more mistakes than usual?

The New York Times recently confronted this issue with a regular freelancer whose corrections total was spiking.

Greg Brock, the Times senior editor who oversees corrections, was able to detect and ultimately address the issue because the paper is one of a handful of media organizations that track errors and corrections in an internal database.

The details of this mini case study was contained in a new column about errors and corrections from Times public editor Arthur Brisbane. His piece details how the paper handles mistakes and how it works to prevent them. Brisbane also offers a nice precis by Scott Maier, the top newspaper accuracy researcher working today. (Brisbane quotes me in the column, too. We spoke by phone last week at his request.)

So, why was that Times freelancer generating more corrections than in the past? From Brisbane’s column:

Upon inquiry, Mr. Brock learned that the freelancer was getting work — perhaps too much work — from multiple desks. The Times cut the assignments back, and the errors subsided.

As a longtime freelancer, I sympathize with this journalist. If The New York Times is feeding you a lot of work, chances are you’ll keep saying yes. In general, a freelancer is loath to say no to an assignment from a top client. You want to establish yourself as a go-to writer. More work means more money, too. So it’s tough on several fronts to be told you need to take fewer assignments because you are making too many errors.

I followed up with Brock to find out how the paper broached this subject with the freelancer. He declined to offer any specifics, but did share the general way the paper handles this kind of situation.

“It’s not an issue of our wanting to help them make fewer errors,” Brock said by email. “The issue is we tell them they can’t write for us if they make that many errors. So it’s their choice as to their number [of] assignments: thoroughly report, write and fact-check each article or you don’t write for The Times. Over the years — quite a few — we have dropped freelancers who were error-prone. There are too many unemployed journalists out there who would kill to report and write — accurately — for us.”

Every reporter has a different workload threshold. Exceed what you can handle and you won’t produce reporting of the same quality. Errors are one byproduct of too much work; They are also the byproduct of lack of research and sloppy writing.

Causes of error

During our conversation, Brisbane asked me what can cause an increase in errors. Workload is just one of many factors. I said the first question to ask  in this situation is: What’s changed?

Are there new people involved in the process of reporting or editing or production? Is someone no longer involved? Are you using new tools or lacking tools you used to have? Is the deadline different?

If things are not the way they used to be, you need to determine what is new or different. Changes in people, processes, and tools/technology are big causes of error. (At the same time, you can improve prevention by tweaking these same things.)

In an email, Brock listed a few other more specific reasons why Times journalists make mistakes:

… we find other reasons for errors: the person keeps looking up things on the Internet and not double-checking them. In those cases, we tell her/him they can’t do that and we monitor it closely. The smart ones, who care, stop doing it.

Others may have a problem with math/statistics. In that case, we figure out a way to help them; give them resources; give them an editor with statistical experience who can backstop them.

So it doesn’t always mean cutting back assignments — unless we determine it’s the work load.

What’s important is the Times doesn’t use its corrections tracker as a stick with which to beat its journalists. It’s a tool that provides useful data to help stop someone from falling into bad habits. It’s a way to identify a problem. From there, it’s important to determine cause and offer options for improving the situation.

Brock’s approach of offering “help … resources … an editor with statistical experience” is exactly right.

When there is a spike in mistakes, as opposed to a major ethical lapse or egregious error, first provide help and training. Discipline comes when the journalist is unable or unwilling to improve. Read more

Audit Commission

New campaign offers tips to help journalists get their numbers straight

Thanks to a campaign from the U.K.’s Royal Statistical Society, journalists now have access to a great collection of tips to help them report numbers accurately.

Former journalist David Walker is the director of Getstats, the Society’s campaign to improve statistical literacy, and he has set part of his sights on newsrooms.

David Walker

The organization recently released 12 “rules of thumb for journalists” to help them do a better job handling numbers. The tips for “numbers hygiene” include “sniff around” and ask, “out of how many?” also has a related story that offers additional tips to help journalists avoid five common pitfalls related to numbers.

In keeping with the spirit of numeracy, I wrote a previous column that shared advice from Sarah Cohen, author of the book, “Numbers in the Newsroom: Using Math and Statistics in News.”

I also followed up with Walker to learn more about the motivation behind Getstats and to tease out a few more tips from him. Here’s our edited exchange.

Poynter: Why do you think journalists struggle with numbers?

David Walker: In the UK, it’s a matter of training and aptitude. Too few media courses insist on even basic statistical literacy — but we’re working to change that and a lot of journalism educators are on side. Journalists, who are supposed to be professionally sceptical, often become gullible when numbers are involved and fail to interrogate them or their provenance. What results is a sort of ‘faith-based’ journalism where numbers are reproduced uncritically.

A study years ago of U.S. newspaper journalists found that they had little faith in their ability to handle numbers. Yet a test administered to that same group of journalists found their skills were actually better than they’d predicted. So is confidence a factor?

Absolutely right. Journalists have to be mentally quick and I don’t at all doubt their capacity. Look at the work of sports journalists, for example, who handle numbers with aplomb. So getting journalists talking more about stats and numbers and embedding them in their ‘normal’ reporting, blogging and commentary is the task.

How is it that it became acceptable for journalists to say things like, “I don’t do math”?

Once people said similar things about ethnicity, gender and even tobacco smoking. Sensibilities change. That’s why we’re campaigning, to try to alter the consciousness of public and media professional alike, to make them ashamed to be anything other than comfortable around numbers and stats.

Your tips look at things like averages, risk, percentages etc. What’s the starting point for a journalist trying to get a better handle on numbers?

It’s a quizzical attitude. Don’t take a number for granted. Ask who generated it, whether they had an interest. Ask about who did the sample and with what degree of accuracy the sample represents a wider population. We’re not expecting journalists to be math stars, rather to apply to numbers the same techniques and approaches they do to other areas of relative ignorance — ask questions and go to trusted sources to establish what’s right. There are plenty of folk out there equipped to help.

Tip #10 says, “Good reporting gives a balanced view of the size of the numbers being reported. Better to focus on the most likely number rather than the most extreme, for example in stories about the effects of a flu pandemic. ‘Could be as high as’ points to an extreme; better to say ‘unlikely to be greater than’.” I admit my reaction was to think that many journalists would face criticism from an editor if they didn’t pick the more shocking number to highlight. Is the tendency to make numbers as sexy or alarming a challenge? How do you combat that within newsrooms?

In the UK we’re in the midst of a great debate about whether journalists can be trusted. Professional pride demands you get the story right. Taking the BIG NUMBER is a recipe for inaccuracy. A good journalist will tell the desk editor, ‘No, that can’t run as the lead, but (after examining the data with rigour and imagination) here’s another angle derived from the same set of figures. And it’s OUR story – not the story being run by the competition.’

A lot of journalists end up quoting public opinion surveys, but not all polls or surveys are created equal. How do you sniff out the bogus claims, or present them in context, especially given the fact that this is a presidential year in the U.S.?

Scepticism about sources applies to numbers and stats. The federal government runs a world class stats service — don’t let extremists tell you different. Government statisticians, who work with a code of conduct that is transparent and accountable, can be trusted; how the politicians spin the numbers is a different issue. Think tanks vary. A good journalist knows her or his way around the credibility of such sources.

One last question: what’s the reaction been from journalists so far to the campaign?

So far, a surprising number of journalists have (somewhat shamefacedly) acknowledged they’d like to do better in handling and reporting numbers. Some media organisations, for example the BBC and the Guardian, have created data and statistics editor positions and are enthusiastic partners in the campaign. Read more


5 tips for getting photo IDs right

Mistaken identifications are among the most common photo errors I see corrected by the media. People in photos have either been mislabeled internally or by a photo or wire service, or someone hasn’t checked the image to verify it’s showing who they think it does.

A case in point: this Monday correction in The Independent

In our print edition of Friday 3 February we ran a photograph of an actor named David Bradley under the heading “stars who have slipped.” We very much regret that we used a photograph of the wrong David Bradley and that the David Bradley we pictured is still enjoying a highly successful career, including playing Argus Filch, the caretaker in the Harry Potter films.

This is a bit tricky, as the photo was in fact of an actor named David Bradley — it was just the wrong David Bradley.

Then there are other photo mistakes that on their face seem less clear and forgivable. Here’s a February correction from The Daily Mirror:

DUE to an error in yesterday’s report concerning the fatal shooting of Alan McNally, the photograph on page 1 purporting to depict the late Alan McNally was in fact of another man who is not involved in any of the matters referred to in the report.

We apologise for the error and for any confusion caused as a result.

We are happy to correct the position.

Or this January apology from the same paper:

ON Friday 30 December 2011, as part of an article concerning a drugs test investigation at Hull FC, we published a picture of a man we said was Ben Cooper who has been suspended for his role in the affair.

In fact the picture was of Stuart Donlan, the assistant coach of Castleford Tigers, who has never been involved in any way with any drugs testing incident. The photo was supplied by an agency. We offer Stuart Donlan, his family and friends our sincere apologies.

These errors are embarrassing for the press, and they cause people to suffer shame and disrepute. I offer a few tips below for how journalists can avoid misidentifying people in photos. I’d also love to hear advice from photo editors and other journalists. Please add your tips to the comments and I’ll update this post with additional advice.

1. Compare the image to other samples. One way to avoid mislabeling or otherwise misidentifying an image is to compare it with other photos of the same person, place or thing. If the photo is from your archives or staff, compare it to similar shots from agencies or other news organizations. This is especially important when identifying people accused of a crime or wrongdoing, or people who have died. The same goes for images of unfamiliar locations.

2. Verify the caption. Often the photo has been labeled correctly in a database, but an error is introduced when adding or editing a caption. It’s a good idea to check the caption against the entry in a database/archives. That means it’s important to maintain a clean archive. (My final tip can also help with this.) Along the same lines, don’t assume an archival label is correct. See if other images in the archive with the same label/caption match up, and also remember to compare to outside sources (tip #1) to uncover discrepancies.

3. Check with the reporter. If the accompanying story was produced by one of your staffers, quickly show her the photo to ensure it’s of the person she saw/interviewed, or of the correct place/product. Always take advantage of firsthand knowledge when it’s available.

4. Maintain an internal list of tricky pics. Maybe there’s a local official that shares a name with a celebrity, criminal or another person likely to be in your photo database? Maybe your news organization has trouble distinguishing between a prominent father and his son? Every beat and community has its share of problematic photos. As a result, it’s important for photo and copy desks to maintain a shared and regularly updated list of the people and images they are prone to mistake. One way to ensure the list is regularly consulted is to have one person tasked with collecting new submissions and sending them to team leaders of all relevant parties. From there, people can email/print out the latest copy and keep it on their desks. (Or better yet, taped to their monitors!)

5. When you find an error, fix it. Internal archives can be a constant source of error if you don’t follow up and help fix mistaken entries. Create an internal process to ensure mistakes are corrected in archives. This could mean designating one person to the job, or working with your library/archives team if you have one. Whenever possible, add annotations to the archival entries for those aforementioned tricky pics in order to remind people to double-check that it’s actually the photo they intend. Read more


Students offer new rules for accurate journalism

In a column last year for Columbia Journalism Review I tried to put some journalism cliches to good use by offering a series of tips and rules to help journalists create accurate work. The idea was to boil accuracy advice down to the essentials, and I ended up with a list of eight rules. Here are three of them:

The initial, mistaken information will be retweeted more than any subsequent correction. I’ve started calling this the Law of Incorrect Tweets. The point is to emphasize that a piece of misinformation is often far more appealing and interesting than the subsequent correction. People are therefore more inclined to retweet or like a false news report than to pay attention to any subsequent correction. Be careful with the information that gets pushed out, and be diligent about repeatedly offering a correction. This is especially true with social media, but the principle — invest time in spreading corrections — is universal.

Verification before dissemination. Our job is to apply the discipline of verification to everything we gather. That means checking what a source tells you before putting it out there. It means holding off on that hot bit of news to make an extra phone call or bit of checking before sending it out. It’s the core of what we do. Too often we are enticed by the glory promised by dissemination. Which leads me to my next rule…

People will forget who got it first, but they remember who got it wrong. Scoops are almost never as impactful and glory-filled as they seem. Apart from Woodward and Bernstein, who were turned into Hollywood characters, how many other journalists are widely known among the general population thanks to a big scoop? I would wager very few. But names like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke seem to endure in the public’s mind. So too do the names of news organizations who push out false or incorrect information about a big story. For example, how many people had heard of the show “What’s Trending” before CBS pulled its backing over an erroneous tweet from the show? When you sacrifice verification for a scoop, you set yourself up to win the worst kind of glory.

After that column appeared, I heard from Sue Burzynski Bullard, an associate professor of journalism at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She found the column useful for her Beginning Editing class. That was great to hear. She also used it as a tool to spark interesting responses from her students.

Bullard asked them to read my column and suggest additional tips for doing accurate journalism. Her students came up with some good additions, and Bullard sent along her favorites. I promised to share them a while back and was delayed in putting them into a follow-up post. Below is Bullard’s selection of the best responses from her students. What tips would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

Kelsey Baker:

One rule I would add is a rule I learned in my science and industrial tech classes: measure twice, cut once. It’s important to always check your measurements because you can only cut once. It’s important to always check your information because you should only have to print the story once. It would be nice to not have any mistakes.

Jacob Sorensen:

Another rule that could be added to the list is ‘Keep it simple.’ Journalists too often have a solid base for a story, but want to reach out and make an assumption, or throw in a random fact to make a story longer and seem more factual. This often creates confusion. If you don’t have the information, don’t use it. It’s better to be safe rather than sorry. Report the facts you know.

Paige Cornwell:

One rule I would add for doing accurate journalism would be to start a story assuming nothing. While it is important to do research before a story, often reporters will think they already know the answers to their questions, which can prevent accurate reporting. Journalists should never make assumptions when writing and they shouldn’t assume when reporting, either.

Emily Walkenhorst:

Don’t get caught up in a source. This includes never printing the source’s jargon or only the source’s side of things. They may be telling the truth, but they’ll never get close to telling all of it.

Frannie Sprouls:

One rule I would add to Silverman’s list is leave your beliefs and opinion at the door, no matter how difficult it may be. The public is not looking for your opinion; if they are, they should head on over to the editorial section. News is about presenting the facts to the public, not twisting the facts so they fit your opinion and beliefs.

Emily Deck:

The writer should always keep in mind that he not only represents himself but also the paper, his city and his state. Don’t make journalism a joke.

Kayla Stauffer:

Another rule to help journalists stay accurate is that they should read their stories backward. When you do this, words often stick out more individually, and you are less likely to race over an incorrectly spelled word or name. Instead of seeing the piece as a whole, you see it word-by-word, and this often helps me fix a handful of errors.

Bethany Schmidt:

My ninth rule to tack on with Craig Silverman’s is ‘don’t trust your gut.’ That is the opposite of what we are usually told to do in tricky situations, but in the world of journalism, trusting your gut and getting it wrong is not acceptable.

Abby Schipporeit:

The rules I would add to Craig Silverman’s list would be to have a passion for reporting accurate news. …You have to have some kind of passion or fire inside you that makes you want to do a good and accurate job.

Brianna Foster:

The rule that I would add to Silverman’s list would be to simply ask questions. When in doubt, it is important to ask questions about details that are unclear.

Cristina Woodworth:

A 9th rule I would add on would be to be aware of your biases so that you can keep them from interfering with objective reporting.

Asha Anchan:

Another accuracy tip I would add to Silverman’s list is, spell check doesn’t cut it. For me, sometimes I rely on the genius of my computer and it lets me down. Instead, I should become a better self-editor so I can quickly weed out the mistakes my computer overlooks.

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Copy editors’ advice for the new year: ‘Slow down’

Two editors recently shared some useful tips to help journalists detect and prevent mistakes. A selection of their advice is below, and be sure to read both articles.

I’ll add to the offerings by pointing to my free downloadable accuracy checklist. Want to know why I’m such an advocate for checklists? You can read more in this post. It includes a basic overview, as well some slides and a liveblog of a workshop I gave at American University. I also recommend this post from Steve Buttry, which includes his own version of a checklist.

Copy Editing Tips

The first bit of accuracy advice comes from Pam Nelson, who writes the Grammar Guide blog for the American Copy Editors Society. She offered 10 tips for copy editors, though they can also be applied to writers. Writers should use a personal accuracy checklist to review their work before passing it to an editor. The reality is newsrooms have fewer sets of eyes checking each piece of copy, so it’s more essential than ever to be a great self editor.

Among the items Nelson says editors (and writers!) need to check are: spelling of names and places, dates, numbers and math. I also liked her point about checking directions:

8. If a story refers to a direction, check it. That may mean getting out a map and looking at the direction.

This is also good advice:

7. If a story uses a quote that seems off (a teacher misusing grammar, a politician or a law enforcement officer seeming to say the opposite of what you’d expect), check the quote with the writer. Sometimes a writer drops the “not” in a quote.


The second great collection of tips comes courtesy of Terence Walsh, assistant news editor at The Frederick News-Post. His article lists eight resolutions he’s made for this year. It’s a great complement to Nelson’s tips because Walsh’s resolutions are as much about mentality and approach as they are about practice. For example:

Slow down — just a little. Easier said than done, I know. Journalists always have a deadline, and maintaining a good, brisk working pace is essential if the copy desk is to get the paper out on time. When practical, however, the copy editor should take a few minutes to read the story and digest what is being said before making any changes beyond fixing an obvious typo. Making note of any questions you may have is a good idea, but read the whole story and make sure your question isn’t addressed before posing it to the writer or assigning editor. Any “big-picture” issues regarding libel, fairness and the like should be raised as early as possible so that more reporting can be done, a senior editor can be consulted, or the story can be held until the concerns can be addressed.

This resolution is also important:

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. John McIntyre, night content production manager at The (Baltimore) Sun, says that a good copy editor knows when to leave things alone. Sounds simple and sensible, but it really isn’t. I’ve been on both sides of this equation: As a longtime copy editor, I can tell you it’s a pleasure to read a story that requires little to no editing. As a writer, I have had well-meaning copy editors make what I consider unnecessary and even bad changes to my work. Not every reporter or editor will agree with every change, but the copy editor should have a good reason why he or she made the change. Furthermore, inserting an error into a story is the cardinal sin of editing, one no editor wants to commit. In other words, make sure what you are “correcting” is actually incorrect.

Editors save writers from making mistakes. It happens all the time. But it’s also true that the editing process can introduce errors. This drives both writers and editors crazy. For a recent example, see this embarrassing typo that changed “herniated disk” to “herniated dick.”

Walsh’s other resolutions are worth reading. As is the full ACES post from Nelson — plus the great comments that offer additional tips. Read more


Three tips for avoiding errors when dealing with archival content

Archives can be dangerous territory for journalists. Searching in databases or a newspaper’s morgue can provide essential background and perspective for current coverage. But it can also lead to errors and other offenses.

This December correction from the Kalgoorlie Miner of Western Australia highlights some of the many challenges journalists and others face when relying on archival content:

IN TUESDAY’S Goldfields History page, we wrote about a shooting incident 50 years ago in which two men died in Hoover Street, Leonora.

The original news article published the names of the two men, one 16 years old and the other 22, which at the time was the style of the newspaper.

The article also mentioned the name of a 14-year-old girl who was shot in the incident.

We acknowledge it is culturally inappropriate to mention in full the names of deceased indigenous people and the name of any juvenile under the age of 16.

Laverton Senior Aboriginal police liaison officer Rex Weldon contacted the Kalgoorlie Miner and we thank him for bringing it to our attention.

We apologise to the woman mentioned in the article, as well as relatives and friends of the deceased.

In this case, the paper wrongly repeating the names of juveniles, and failed to account for a specific cultural sensitivity with Australia’s Aboriginal community. It was tripped up by older practices that no longer work for today’s reporting.

In another example, New York Times reporter David W. Dunlap recently dug into the paper’s archives and located his first story, published 30 years before. After quoting from the piece in a recent blog post, he received an email from the source he interviewed three decades before.

“I had no idea that I was a part of your first article and that James Gleick was your editor!,” the man wrote. “It was fun to know this after so many years. Michael Silberstein. P.S. It’s Silberstein, not Silverstein.”

Well, better late than never, as they say. So Dunlap wrote a follow up post to confess his error and offer a correction:

An article on July 20, 1981, about the failure of the transmitter serving the Columbia University radio station, WKCR-FM, misspelled the name of the station’s general manager. He was Michael Silberstein, not Silverstein. This correction was delayed because we heard from Mr. Silberstein only last week.

These two examples highlight the perils of relying on archival content — even if it’s under your byline. So how can you guard against repeating old mistakes, or mishandling older information? I have three accuracy tips for working with archival content, and would love to hear more from you in the comments.

  1. Don’t assume old facts are correct. Recheck names, dates, figures. Just because it made it into your publication, or another reputable outlet, doesn’t mean it’s a flawless report. If you intend to reuse information, you must verify it. If you plan to quote it as an artifact of that moment in time, be sure to make that clear to the audience, and to flag any inaccuracies.
  2. Check if laws/practices/standards have changed. The Kalgoorlie Miner correction illustrates how publishing and identification practices can change over time. That’s also true for laws. Make sure to handle archival information according to today’s standards. Or, if it makes sense to comply with the old standards, note the exception and explain why. This may turn out to be an interesting part of your new story.
  3. Try to track down the players. This is often necessary when updating a story. But in many cases, journalists don’t take the time to see if the principal players are still around and available. A bit of time spent searching and making phone calls or sending emails can help you check for errors in the original report, and gather new facts. As shown in the example from the Times, these original sources may come and find you anyway. So it’s best to reach out to them before publishing to check the original and see if they have anything new and interesting to add.

Update Jan. 5: — Donald W. Meyers posed two good questions in the comments of this post:

Would you mind explaining why it was culturally insensitive to give the full names of dead people? As an American, I don’t understand the problem, and you didn’t set up the correction well enough to show why it was such a faux pas. Plus, if the names were public record before, why expunge a historical record?

He’s right that my post didn’t provide background about the specific cultural sensitivity mentioned in the correction. I followed up with Lawrie Zion, an associate professor of journalism at La Trobe University in Australia, to ask if he could provide some information.

“There is no blanket convention, but many media organisations have acknowledged the importance of recognising the sensitivities of the issue of how coverage of deceased persons should be dealt with,” he told me by email.

Zion pointed me to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation protocol document [PDF] that deals with the coverage of aboriginal communities. The document has a section dedicated to the reporting of deaths. It includes this warning message that ABC Television, Radio and Online use as an introduction to relevant programming:

WARNING: The ABC seeks to treat Indigenous cultures and beliefs with respect. To many communities it is distressful and offensive to depict persons who have died. Indigenous communities which may be offended are warned that the following program may contain such scenes.

This passage also seems particularly relevant:

Many communities have a mourning period where that person’s name and image cannot be used. The time of mourning is different between communities. It can be for a week, year or for an indefinite period of time that you will not be able to use the deceased’s name, image, voice or video. Some communities offer a mourning name e.g. Kumantjayi in parts of the Northern Territory as in the case of Dr Charles Perkins was called Kumantjayi Perkins.

I think those two excerpts help explain the sensitivity.

As for Donald’s second question about “expunging the record,” I replied to that in the comment thread, saying, “To your last point, I don’t see the paper omitting the names as akin to expunging the record. The archives remain intact, as the correction is for a recent story, not the original. I do however agree it would be wrong to go back in and change the original piece.”

Thanks to Donald for two good questions. Read more


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