Discussion notes: accuracy

The first commandment of modern journalism remains accuracy (it wasn’t always so). Present accurate information in an accurate context and in a way that can be understood by the reader, listener or viewer. That’s the reporter’s job. That’s especially the editor’s job.

What does that mean? How can an editor make it happen?

Many errors, if not most, are made at the reporting stage of the journalistic process. Sometimes, there is not much that an editor can do about them, given limited time and resources to check them. (This is true for daily news organizations, but it is less so for magazines.) Still, editors have to take responsibility for all the errors in their publication, and they need to systematically guard against making errors.

So, how?

• Presenting information that is verifiable. Some information should not be produced by professional journalistic organizations because it cannot be checked. We used to put most rumors in that category, although the standard here may be changing.

• Making sure interpretations of information are fair and reasonable and that they exclude other interpretations.

• Gathering information from various sources that might confirm the information we have or give us additional perspective on it. The editor must exercise careful judgment in weighing the credibility of those sources.

Many times in our editing of news stories, the nature of the information points to one and only one source, so this last procedure may not be possible. An editor must be practiced and knowledgeable enough to discern that

— which argues for a wide range of knowledge on the part of an editor. It also argued for editors being specialists in something – that is, having an intimate knowledge of some subject. What are you a specialist in? (Instructors: Ask this question of your students and you’ll get some interesting answers.)

 

Achieving accuracy

What are the practical steps we can take as editing students to achieve accuracy? Read chapter 4 in your text (The Complete Editor) on Accuracy, Clarity and Brevity, the tri-part Holy Grail of Journalism. Then, when you have an editing assignment, do the following:

question, question, question. Raise questions about every sentence you read. Does this sound right? Does it pass a smell test? Could the source have really said this? Does this make sense? Do I know something different? If you do, it’s your responsibility to change the copy or to raise a question with the instructor.

check what you can check. The stylebook and dictionary are the first places to begin. If an article refers to the “assassination of President John Kennedy in 1964,” check it out (it’s wrong!). As time allows, check anything you think there will be a record of.

names, dates, times. Names of people in news stories should always be checked for spelling and appropriate titles. Go back to the reporter (or ask the instructor) for a check on dates and times.

do the math. When a story contains numbers, make sure you add them up. If a story says something like “35 years ago in 1969,” make sure that 1969 is 35 years ago (it isn’t).

internal logic. Reporters contradict themselves in their writing; it happens more than you might think. Stay sensitive to finding these contradictions. Sometimes there is a reason for including contradictory information, but those reasons should be obvious or spelled out for the reader. The editor has to deal with them.

use the language literally. One of the exercises in The Complete Editor says that the city council reacted “violently” to the mayor’s budge proposal. Yet, there was no fighting during the city council meeting. Everything was civil, no violence at all.  The word “violently” was used inaccurately, making the description of the event inaccurate.

In journalism, we speak literally, not figuratively, and we deal with specific, concrete information rather than vague ideas.

use your common sense.  You don’t enter a parallel universe when you are an editor; you deal with a very real world. Words, phrases, sentences, statements and other items that sound out of kilter probably are. Deal with them; fix them. Make them make sense.

Judging the accuracy of a piece of writing and correcting the writing to make it accurate is not unlike what we do as adults in reacting to the world around us. We have to decide what is true, relevant and accurate in order to make good decisions about our lives. In journalistic editing, those processes are the same – only they are often done with more intensity, with the knowledge that decisions will affect the lives of others, and with the pressure of a deadline.

Example

A local newspaper had this headline in a January 2000 edition.

Grandson revives the memory of Confederate general

The headline ran beside a picture of two men shaking hands. Presumably, one was the man to whom the headline referred. Both appeared to be middle aged, between 40 and 60 years old. Given that the Civil War occurred in the 1860s, nearly 140 years ago, it did not seem reasonable that either was the grandson of a Confederate general. DO THE MATH.

The headline was wrong.

The story identified one of the men in the picture as the great-grandson of Confederate general Jeb Stuart. The headline writer — on most newspapers that’s a different person that the one who writes the story — misunderstood or was too lazy to rewrite the head to make it accurate.

Or worse, the headline writer didn’t think it made any difference. For people who try to promote professionalism in the media, that’s a scary thought.


An additional note: John Early McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copydesk at the Baltimore Sun, has an excellent piece on the Poynter web site about the importance of editing. In it, he cites a 2003 conference on Editing for the Future held at the First Amendment Center in Nashville. The web site for the conference contains many resources for those interested in editing, including a session devoted to accuracy. That session was led by Margaret Holt, customer service editor of the Chicago Tribune. During her presentation (which can be viewed on video at the site), she told the story of the time when the Tribune got serious about guarding against inaccuracies:

Since 1992 the Chicago Tribune has hired a proofreader to do an errors-per-page annual report, so the newsroom can track errors from year to year. “We were abysmal starting out,” she said. “I think we were as high as 4.82 errors per page.”

However, the Tribune’s accuracy program kicked into high gear in 1995 when it suffered an accuracy “meltdown.” A senior writer misidentified a top Tribune executive in an obituary of a beloved editor. That executive was “not happy,” Holt said. The obit was published on a Saturday, and by Monday, the executive ordered the Tribune to establish an error policy.

(Posted Feb. 9, 2005)

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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