Being accurate: It's your job
If there is a single core to the media profession, it's to be accurate. It's even more important with accusations such as "Fake News" can so easily be made.
A misspelled name — one of the biggest sins a reporter can make — can discredit an entire article (I know, I've had people in my office saying if the reporter got the name wrong, how do they know if anything is accurate).
Being accurate is simple ... and also complex.
In this article, we will look at some basic rules of accurate reporting, how to ensure accuracy during the interview, how to verify information in the copy-editing process, and the single most important rule of all.
Three basic rules of accurate reporting
1. Never assume
Assumption is the devil in reporting. We assume a date, a name, some information, etc., and it comes back to bite us.
2. Learn from mistakes
Almost everything on this list is based off a mistake someone’s made, and adapting to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again. Don’t blow off mistakes. Ask yourself how the mistake was made and how you can avoid making it again. Then put a plan in place.
3. Be confident, but be paranoid
Be confident in your work, but paranoid as hell that you can make a mistake. The best reporters know they can write, but double check all information on a level of obsession.
Interview tips: Names
Many a reporter has hid in shame for misspelling a name. Excuses like "I assumed because it was a common name" (horrible) or "I got it from a list" (lazy) simply are not excusable.
True horror story: One time, a sports reporter interviewed an opposing team's coach, didn't ask the coach's name, went back to the office to write his story expecting to get the name for the school website. Good idea, right?
Wrong: the school website hadn't been updated in five years, and the coach listed on the site had died five years ago. So, the story ran quoting a coach who had been dead five years.
Don't. Be. That. Reporter.
The first thing I recommend on any interview is verifying name and title. So here are some tips:
Always ask for business cards; it should have the correct name spelling of the person, the company and the person’s title. When they give you the card, ask if everything on it is accurate (sometimes a job title has changed or, True Horror story, a person recently married and didn't get new cards with the new last name).
Show them their names
Always ask for a name spelling and title if they don’t have a card. Then show them the spelling of the name.
See if a parent is around to double check a child’s name; coaches are notoriously bad about spelling their athletes names, so be aware of that. Also, by talking to parents, you can ease their mind about “someone from the newspaper” — though they may not know who the person is — talking to their child. If a parent is not around, give the child your business card and tell him or her to give it to the parents.
Don’t trust lists given to you unless you firmly trust the source. Often, people are guessing at name spellings. You might be better served to start creating your own lists that you trust, which can also make the story writing faster on deadline (creating templates for beat coverage with everyone’s names and titles in it).
Can be a good source for name spellings, but not always 100 percent clear.
Some sites might be considered more reliable for information, others may not. Double check with the editor to see if he or she thinks that info is reliable. Also, make sure to credit any information off a Web site to the site.
Sites that collect public record information are often the most accurate if you're trying to verify a name. For example, the Highway Patrol sends out a press release about a fatality. Don't trust it unless you want to get an angry call from a grieving relative. Verify the name.
Interview tips: The interview
Write some questions out beforehand
It gives you a roadmap to the interview. Get the basics out of the way upfront — who, what, when, where, why and how. Don’t forget “What next?” You don’t have to stick with the interview questions if the interview goes way off track and you want to head that direction. But it’s not uncommon to miss some basic questions because a reporter gets locked up in follow-up questions.
Use a notebook and a recorder
Some journalists use just a notebook. Others use a notebook and recorder; I recommend the latter, just so you can double check your notes or use it.
If you have a fast talker or if you don’t fully understand the subject, tell the person to slow down or re-explain. It’s better to look stupid in an interview than print wrong information in the paper and look stupid to the whole community.
Make sure you are on the same page
It’s not uncommon for a reporter to ask a question thinking about one thing and the person being interviewed to hear the question but think it means something else. Don’t be afraid to clarify your question or their response. Make sure you fully understand.
Double check facts before interview ends
Go back through notes; make sure you have information right. Also, don’t be afraid to paraphrase a comment to make sure you understand.
Get a call back number
Always end an interview telling the person that you might have some more questions and request a phone number you can reach them at later that day (cell phone or home phone). It does two things: one, it allows you to call back that night, meaning you don’t have to tell the editor we can’t verify or follow up with something immediately; two, it adds to your contact list, so if some news were to break after hours, and this person might have some information, you have a person you can contact.
Know unreliable sources
There are a couple of people in your town who are in positions of power who have been guilty too often of giving the wrong information: know who they are, and then double check the information against someone else.
Bold or mark unclear information as you write a story
As you write a story, if you are not positive about something, mark it somehow so you can double check. Don’t wait until you’re done.
Use a highlighter
In my opinion, the single greatest copy-editing tool. Go through the story and highlight all factual information as you verify it. Dates, names, places, etc.
Always check the calendar
If they give you a day and date (Friday, Nov. 12), always check a calendar to see if both the day and the date match up. You will be surprised at how often they don’t.
- True Horror Story: So many times funeral homes will send an obit with an incorrect date and day — saying a funeral is on Wednesday, May 17 when May 17 is on a Tuesday. The worst is if it's the mistake is the week of the funeral and you just write Wednesday and don't list the date. This happens in press releases for events, too. It may be their fault for sending the wrong info, but it's YOUR fault if you publish it incorrectly because you did not do a simple verification.
• Call back; don’t be afraid to call someone back to verify information. I would rather you “bother” someone than get information wrong.
• Read back quotes; if someone asks, I don’t have a problem with it; or if you want to verify what the person said or his or her intent.
Give your story multiple read throughs before giving it to the editor
I recommend two at least, three is better.
• Use a first read through to make sure everything makes sense and that you can answer the following question: Can someone who has never read previous stories on the subject understand what it is about?
• Use a second read through to ensure all facts and names are correct and vet out unneeded words — make sure you can answer the basics: who, what, when, where, why, how and what next
• A third read through to be safe.
Final thought: Single most important thing you can do
Learn from your mistakes. You're going to make them, but will you take the steps to ensure the same mistake does not happen again?
This list was initially compiled as a newsroom exercise when I was publisher with the Rawlins Daily Times. Eighty percent of that list came from me, not because I made more mistakes than other people, but because the mistakes tore at me and I wanted to see how each mistake was made and try to be better next time.
At the end of the day, you're doing good work. Don't let good work be destroyed by an accuracy mistake, which at the end of the day should be not an issue.
Jerry Raehal is the CEO of Colorado Press Network and the Colorado Press Association. He wants to ensure all reporters and editors are accurate in their reporting because when one looks bad, it makes them all look bad.
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