A key point is that there are no revelations here. You should have heard or thought about each of these tips at one time or another in your career because they are the basics. The value of this section is that it brings under one cover the fundamentals as they apply to accuracy. Like a good grammar text or the stylebook, these tips should be reviewed from time to time as a reminder and a refresher.
It's always surprising how many errors could be avoided if we would just do the calculations suggested by what we are writing about. You may not want to recompute the entire county budget proposal, but a spot check of at least some of the sections might be informative.
Ages and birth dates appearing in the same story ought to be compared automatically. And, simple addition or subtraction can be done quickly to confirm that the flood waters really did rise three feet, as the lead says.
People need to keep in mind some of the more subtle problems, such as calling a salary increase of 5 percent in each of three years a three-year, 5 percent increase.
Math guides for journalists exist or can be created in-house, and the tools of computations may exist in your text-editing system, or you may need to buy a $10 calculator for those who need them.
Spot checking descriptions and directions in copy can be a chilling experience. Likewise: comparing maps prepared in-house with those from commercial map companies or actually going to the scene. We should be doing those checks routinely but often we don't.
Every newspaper seems to have some geographic area in its circulation territory that gives the staff location problems. Misidentifying municipalities or prominent features builds walls between the paper and its readers, who know where things are and can't understand why we don't. Being aware of these trouble-spots can help a staff build suitable prevention--if nothing more than checklists that help raise flags whenever one of these sites is encountered in copy.
In the bad old days, it used to be a lot harder to rearrange type. The newsroom had to cut and paste to really make a hash of a story. Of course, the composing room could do it fairly easily as they grabbed handfuls of type. Now, the situation is reversed as computers make it easy to move type around in stories and pagination makes it more difficult to scramble the story in production.
So, we need to be more careful than ever as we write and edit in the newsroom.
A couple of key points:
(1) The person who spots an error and doesn't take some action has just negotiated the paper into an embarrassing, possibly costly bind.
(2) Not saying anything puts you in the domain of the error. You've just taken a stake in the problem and it is no subordinate's right to knowingly lower the standard of the newspaper.
(3) The willingness of staff to report errors they see may be a function of other factors in the newsroom culture and managerial environment. If people aren't willing to come forward, it may mean (a) they aren't reading the paper (another problem!), (b) they are afraid or not motivated to speak up (which relates to openness and other management factors). Don't kill the messenger when flaws are reported; encourage everyone to have a stake in the quality of the paper.
We're creative, sensitive people and often that means we're very defensive people as well. Sometimes the first response is to dismiss a question as unfounded, uninformed or unnecessary--a very risky approach.
It's even more annoying when the red flags were raised somewhere in our subconscious self and for whatever reason we ignored or failed to act on the warnings. Don't put off a doubt or expect that you'll remember to go back and check that fact as the pace subsides. It seldom happens.
Pretty much a follow-up to the previous rule; the point here is to step out of the box a moment when a question is raised and try to see the story or headline or cutline or graphic with a new vision.
Doing this may avoid ambiguity that spoils the effort.
The point also underscores the value of having people take and active interest in each other's work and feel free to participate in making the newspaper better for its readers.
This list of tips is not arranged in order because they're all important. However, if there is one tip that is more critical to news accuracy than all the others, it is this one.
The Rule of Fair Comment says that if you quote or report the views of one source in an issue, you go to the people on the other side for their perspectives and responses.
A position that is not subjected to the test of opposing ideas does not serve readers well, no matter how strongly we believe in that position or how much we want readers to believe in it. Even an editorial, to be effective, must account for the other side's arguments.
Another point here, of course, is that in hearing the other side you may discover that the original source was wrong or failed to account for certain facts.
And besides, getting the other side is only fair.
Everything we put in the paper must be instantly clear to a reader who hasn't the time or inclination for deep structural analysis of last night's municipal budget hearing or the NBA draft story.
-- is doomed.
This follows the sense of the previous rule in giving you some red-flag phrases that help identify when you're getting out onto thin ice.
In high relief here, the absurdity of allowing these responses to shut down a question is obvious. Thus, it's astonishing how often you hear these comments in the newsroom.
Note that in "What else could it be?" and "Everybody knows that" the thrust is to demean and dismiss the question AND the questioner. You have to ask yourself what kind of newspaper is produced by a newsroom in which people can be savaged for asking a question.
Anything that looks odd is worth a double-check, even if it appears somebody already has done that. There have been too many instances in which the CQ refers to inaccurate copy. At least an occasional spot check of an item marked CQ may surprise you.
Often, errors get through because of a momentary lapse in attention and concentrations. Stay focused and see everything.
The trick in editing copy is maintaining a constantly changing focus, from close-up microscopic examination for the fine points to a more macro view of the overall effects.
The one-two punch in ensuring news accuracy is having the right reference materials and tools and then using them.
Of course, we have to remember they are simply tools and don't take the place of a journalist and his or her judgment. The best hammer and saw won't build a house by themselves.
Nobody should care more about your work than you do.
For the same reasons you may be tempted to cut corners, so might your colleagues, and while they're fine people, they'll be more apt to cut corners on your work than you might.
Studies and anecdotal evidence show there is a high likelihood that the original keyboard error will survive through successive editing checks. Don't expect that the backup systems will work unerringly.
Even the best, most reliable person sometimes has lapses. You may have every reason to trust good old Sue who never gets anything wrong. But Sue may be around to thank you for that important save you made in her copy by not assuming she was right as usual.
And, of course, operationally it gets tougher and tougher to do precise work on every story as the deadline nears. Avoid the risks by getting copy in on time--or earlier--and getting it right the first time.
In our business it's frequently the superlatives that make news--they're part of the definition of news--but often the quest for the counterintuitive blinds us to the warning signals that intuition rightly sends up. We may be too quick to believe the weird situation because that's precisely what we're on the lookout for.
It argues strongly for the Rule of One Last Check.
For all these reasons and more, everyone--not only the reporters--should be looking at the clips. Editors and copy editors, graphics people and photographers may find helpful background or organizing information or good questions to ask by looking at what's been said before.
Possibly one of the two weakest excuses for a published error is "That's what it said in the clips."
Treat the clips--whether yellowed pieces of crumpled, torn paper or crisp images on a color monitor--as unverified information that only just may be correct. Perpetuating an error because you didn't check out the information contained in the clips is inexcusable and may even create libel problems (actual malice).
(By the way, the other just-as-bad excuse is "That's what it says in my notes," as if nothing wrong ever got into a reporter's notebook).
The conditions that led to a great, dynamic, action-packed photo may be just the conditions that work against obtaining accurate information for the cutline on the scene. Be sensitive to the conditions under which the information likely was obtained and defend accordingly.
But by the same token, it may be that the photographer on the scene has a better opportunity to get facts straight from the source than the reporter or copy editor. Honor that possibility, too.
The main point is simply to use all of the resources at your disposal, comparing story with cutline and each with other reference material as appropriate.
Often clues to certain facts are available simply by looking closely at the photo before you write the cutline. Not infrequently you can pick up the spelling of a name from the photo and confirm other information as well.
The worst-case scenario may be writing a cutline that identifies three people and then seeing only two in the photo that comes out in the paper. Lesser variations include saying in a cutline that something is happening and discovering later when you actually see the photo that you're wrong. (A recent Page One cutline said somebody was pointing to a statue. The picture, however, showed that person standing with his arms at his side. In fact, the statue seemed to be pointing at him.)
Just because they've got a financial stake in the information doesn't make these people any more accurate or careful. And just because they've got a financial stake in the information, PR people may shade the truth in varying degrees.
In short, check it all out.
Plausibility and probability are no substitutes for accuracy. Don't begin surgery on a story until you know your facts. Remember that ours is a business that defines its product in part by its unique features and unusualness. Strange information may be wrong -- or it may be news. Check it out.
Here again, going on probabilities ("He probably spelled it right the first time.") is highly risky. And truth is not a matter of frequencies or consensus.
At the slightest doubt or on the smallest evidence that something might be wrong, check it out.
If this list looks exhaustive, it's meant to be. The idea is that we can't operate in a vacuum. Changing copy at any point in the pipeline simply because it seems to be wrong or could be said better another way risks error unless done in consultation with--or even by--the originating author.
Don't let pride or operational exigencies get in the way of being sure. We have too few occasions for proper backstopping as it is. History tells us that lone guns often get shot down. Don't try to do it all yourself, get somebody to double-check your work.
Here are two tips:
(1) As copy desk chief, I developed a pretty good sense of what my rim editors' strengths were. In handing out pages to be proofed I always played to those strengths by getting the trickiest stories into the hands of the pickiest copy editors. Often, too, my choice of who would proof what stories was a sort of test marketing a headline idea or the organizing concept of the story.
(2) Never have the same editor who handled a story the first time turn around a proofread the story on the page. Get fresh eyes on the story at every opportunity.
It's amazing how quickly a lone gun can become a loose cannon. Not communicating well with others on the team is a sure-fire way of shooting yourself in the foot.
At evaluation time, I'd give much higher marks to the copy editor who consulted early and often with others about headlines than the one who felt it was a sign of weakness to talk things over.
In his book, Making News, Martin Mayer writes, "Reporting as a trade cannot be practiced without a commitment to and a talent for self-education." That's incredibly important and it's true of all news work. Analyzing your work and that of colleagues in your newspaper can teach you a lot and amounts to opening a symbolic dialogue. In fact, it's the beginning of real dialogue and real growth.
It doesn't get more simple than that yet in papers big and small we continue to see far too many corrections over erroneous telephone numbers.
Often, it seems, the erroneous number causes inconvenience but relatively little harm. However, put yourself at the phone of somebody whose number was published in the paper by mistake. Tell them that nobody was inconvenienced very much.
At the more extreme end, papers have been known to publish incorrect numbers for medical emergency services.
By the way, apply that same rule to Web addresses, too.
More self-learning here. I always turn to the corrections page of a newspaper to see what happened and try to imagine how it occurred and how it could have been avoided.
And while I can chortle as hard as anyone at some of the silly things that get reported in Columbia Journalism Review's "The Lower Case," I try to stay humble and learn even as I laugh. There but for the grace of God or some eagle eye on the copy desk go any of us.
Look, too, for a systems approach to the problem rather than a simple, "Do this or don't do that." For instance, a lot of those hilarious juxtapositions of headlines and picture that are unrelated but somehow aptly paired in a perverse way suggest that the paper needs to do a better job of ensuring its system allows one person to see the entire package. Persistently fuzzy or erroneous cutlines may be a sign that the cutline writers are not getting everything they need (clear photos, good detail from photographers) to do the job.
Step back from the work and, no matter how much effort you've just put into it, try to read with a fresh, innocent eye. Look for hidden or unintended meanings or lapses of some sort. Make sure that the changes you made really were necessary improvements and not simply another way of saying things. And above all, make sure the changes you made were accurate.
A frequent error in copy editing is to fix a word or phrase at one part of a sentence and not see that the fix affected something else in the sentence. Subject-verb disagreement and pronoun-antecedent disagreement are two frequent results of such partial surgery.
Remember that a change here may require a change there.
The "Rule of the Best Source" suggests there is a hierarchy of sources and that one or two will be the best of all possible exponents on the subject at hand. Reporters should seek them out automatically for their stories and, just as automatically, editors and copy editors should ensure that the stories they edit are based on such sources.
Situationally, sometimes the best source isn't available and you're faced with going with a next-best source. That's OK, so long as you're sensitive to some of the risks inherent with less-than-top sources and employ some defenses.
It almost goes without saying that the best source for one point of view on an issue is not the best source to represent the opposing side but there are frequent examples of that being attempted.
Whatever your job title, you're first and last a journalist and that means being prepared to seek out necessary information on deadline from the appropriate sources.
No copy editor should be afraid to call a reporter late at night with a serious and substantive question, and no reporter should chew out the caller for trying to avoid an accident with their copy.
A friend once described wire copy as "pre-edited" but sometimes one wonders. A great deal of wire copy, from the general services and from the prestige supplementals alike, has holes and downright erroneous information. Be sharp and be quick to call for fixes. It always scared me that when my rim called AP to flag some erroneous material, we seemed to have been the only paper to call about it and sometimes, because they told us the correct information over the phone on deadline, we were the only paper to have it right.
As we extend the definitions of news and newsworthiness to include more close-to-home, "everyday" kinds of activities, we increase the likelihood that readers may know quite a bit more about a subject than we do and that we'll get it wrong.
One way of reducing the risk is to tap the considerable strength of colleagues' avocational interests. Very often there are one or two people in the newsroom who do the very kinds of things we're writing about. Don't be afraid to ask their opinions on topics and stories about things you don't know yourself.
That goes for longer words you use in copy, too. Everybody knows--or should--that "assert" and "admit" don't mean precisely the same thing as "say" but the meanings of some other words seem to escape journalists' understanding quite regularly.
For instance, "flap" isn't the word you want to describe a shoot-out; "mishap" hardly fits a fatal auto accident; "refute" isn't the same as rebutting a charge or a claim; and "plan" implies specificity and detail far beyond the hazy notions that are so frequently labeled "plans" in print.
One way of identifying inappropriate word choices is to look for the cliche words. Almost by definition, a cliche, well, uhh, muddies the water and makes meanings less clear.
Ignorance is no excuse when it comes to errors in print. And when it comes to using all the resources available to you, be sure to include the availability of a source at the time you have a question.
We've all had the experience of checking out one fact and discovering that a second one may be wrong, too, or that the organizing principle misses the point, or that there was another source we should have interviewed.
Keep the options open and include some broad questions along with those that are specific to what you called about.
Leading the source can be just as problematic as leading a witness in a court of law, but often there's no jurist in the newsroom to let you know you're out of line.
Answers under the gun to questions that start "Is this ...?" are likely to be "yes" or "no" and may fail to convey the important qualifications or even that the source simply misunderstood the question.
Or, as noted before, you may fail to uncover the richness of the topic or important contravening information simply by asking questions that shut down the dialogue.
Sometimes, too, we're more abrupt with colleagues than with external sources. That's a communication lapse with major consequences.
Sort of like the old dodge of using direct quotes for material we can't explain. "I don't know what it means, either, but that's what he said, chief."
Another not-so-minor annoyance in this regard is taking a question to one of the authors of a multiple byline story and being told that he or she doesn't know the answer and doesn't really care because that stuff came from the other reporter. Big help to the reader in that defense. Time for everyone to accept their stake in what goes out to the readers.
The more times we repeat a fact, the greater the likelihood that at least one reference will not agree with all the rest. Multiple references may be unavoidable and may even be prized (teaser promos, etc.) but the problem argues for finding a way to have one set of eyes see all the references to identify contradictions.
Errors may lie in the eye of the beholder. What the source sees as an error, the journalist may see simply as the basic product of good news work.
Certain conditions and predilections may predispose sources and other readers to claim error where none really exists. Some studies have traced error claims to the sources' desire for more space for their point of view and less for their opponents.
And there wouldn't be a sillier correction than the one that says, essentially, "We were wrong about being wrong."
This argues for that second, broad look at copy in which a problem has been found and fixed. The evidence is anecdotal but highly suggestive that we're drawn to the worst errors and, if those are big enough or silly enough, we can easily lose track of smaller, more routine problems.
It's sort of like pulling back out into the traffic lane on your bicycle and forgetting that the car that just passed you may be towing a big boat.
Humility and concentration are essential attributes of any good journalist.
This web site was published in coordination with the Knight Total Editing Program at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
Knight Total Editing Program
E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University
e-mail Frank Fee at firstname.lastname@example.org