Eight Simple Rules for Doing Accurate Journalism

Some new, some old, some wonderfully clichéd

It’s a cliché to say clichés exist for a reason. As journalists, we’re supposed to avoid them like the, um, plague. But it’s useful to have a catchy phrase that can stick in someone’s mind, particularly if you’re trying to spread knowledge or change behaviour.

This week I began cataloguing some of my own sayings about accuracy — you can consider them aspiring clichés — and other phrases I find helpful or instructive in preparation for a workshop I’m giving with The Huffington Post’s Mandy Jenkins at next week’s Online News Association conference. Our session is called B.S. Detection for Online Journalists. The goal is to equip participants with tools, tips, and knowledge to get things right, and weed out misinformation and hoaxes before they spread them.

So, with apologies to Bill Maher, I offer some new, some old, and some wonderfully clichéd rules for doing accurate journalism. Keep these in your head and they’ll help you do good work.

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 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.

A journalist is only as good as her sources — We often encounter a source who spins a great story, only to later discover he or she was lying to us. Or, well, spinning. Since we rely on sources to build our reporting and inform us and the public, the quality and diversity of sources is hugely important. So make the effort to find the best sources possible. This is where the next favorite saying of mine comes in to play.

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 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.

Failure sucks but instructs — This is a saying from management professor and bestselling author Bob Sutton. He lauded the value of failure in a post for the Harvard Business Review: “In fact, there is no learning without failure — and this includes failing at dangerous things like surgery and flying planes. Discovery of the moves that work well is always accompanied by discovery of moves that don’t.” We must do everything we can to avoid factual errors and spreading misinformation. But, at the same time, we must remember that we will make mistakes. And that’s when we have to move past the shame and anger and figure out how to turn our mistakes into valuable lessons. That’s how you stop making the same mistakes, how you get better.

If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out — This is a saying popularized by the folks at the Chicago News Service City News Bureau.* Perhaps it’s not as rhythmic as my “verification before dissemination” line, but the idea is the same. In this case, he line is great because it includes a built-in caution about sources. Familiarity and history do not excuse you from checking out the information. Nothing does. (Sorry, mom.)

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is — Journalists are often fooled because we want a story to be true. We want to be able to write about it, we want to be the first to have it. Maybe it confirms something we’ve always believed. Maybe it’s just a great story we can’t wait to turn into a narrative. One illustrative recent example is the fake research report that claimed users of Internet Explorer had a lower IQ than those who use other web browsers. It gave lots of folks a chuckle, and it reinforced a perception. This rule is also useful when it comes to amazing images from breaking news event. Street shark, anyone?

It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup — This applies to transgressions of all sizes. Refusing to correct a misspelled name has the potential to cause far greater damage than simply issuing a proper correction. Blindly circling the wagons without first seeing if complaints and requests for correction are valid only further enrages people. Admit your errors and reap the rewards.

Those are my maxims. What about you? What other rules or clichés apply to accuracy? Put them in the comments and let’s see what we can come up with.

Correction of the Week

In a Sept. 15 “Science,” Daniel Engber mistakenly referred to the latest Transformers movie as Dark Side of the Moon. That’s the title of a Pink Floyd album. The movie is subtitled Dark of the Moon. - Slate

Correction: The organization that originated the saying “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out” was not called the Chicago News Service. It was called the City News Bureau. Here’s a ninth rule for doing accurate journalism: always double-check names. CJR regrets the error.

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , , ,