How to emulate the practices of professional journalists
As more individuals practice citizen journalism and more organizations incorporate media into their online communication strategies, it’s important to keep in mind the fundamental precepts of journalism.
Here’s a short guide to ensuring accuracy from the Center for Citizen Media in a project that I managed.
Before you write
1. The best way to maintain accuracy is to develop a system and stick to it.
2. Take the extra seconds to read back to the interviewee the spelling of his or her name. If you need an age, ask for a birth date and year.
3. Avoid using secondary sources to verify facts.
4. If you have to use secondary sources, find at least two and make sure they agree independently; don’t simply ask one to confirm what the other said.
5. Verify phone/fax numbers, web and email addresses. For example, copy the url from the document and paste it into a browser. Call the phone number.
When you write
1. Consult your documentary sources – notebook, printed materials – as you’re writing. If you don’t want to interrupt the writing flow, make sure to put a mark reminding you to double-check it later. “ck” for “check” is a standard proofreader’s mark. “cq” is shorthand for “this is accurate”; it is often used with unusual spellings, facts and figures.
2. Identify your sources. Your readers need to know where this information comes from so they can judge its credibility.
3. Show transparency. If someone appears to be an expert, that’s one thing. If they also have a financial or other stake in one version of the story, that’s another. Be skeptical. Good journalists have to assume that everyone, even people they like, may sometimes shade the truth.
4. Don’t confuse opinions with facts. Opinions make personal journalism lively, but make sure your readers know what is fact and what is an opinion.
After you write
1. Leave fact checking and editing for last. If you want to do a thorough copy edit, print out the content. Spell-check your work!
2. Proofread your corrections for readability. (Be careful, because sometimes you can accidentally introduce a new error.) Make sure your corrections haven’t affected the sentence and paragraph they are in.
3. Assemble all your source materials – notebooks, interview transcripts, tapes, books, studies, photos, everything you’ve used to report and write your story. Then go over every word in the story and compare it to the original source. On projects and even on daily stories, some reporters make a printout just for names and titles, another for quotes, a third for other details.
4. Fact check. Many magazines use professional fact checkers, and they still manage to make mistakes frequently. People may be citing you as a source, so try to get the details right.
5. Call your source back and double-check key facts. If you’re describing a financial transaction, a medical procedure or how a sewer bond works, there’s nothing wrong with calling the source and asking him or her to listen to what you’ve written. Remember: Editors at The Oregonian in Portland concluded that the three most frequent sources of error are working from memory, making assumptions and dealing with second-hand sources. Avoid these whenever possible.
This article originally appeared at the Center for Citizen Media. Please comment on, correct or expand upon this article.
Image at top: Jim Hickcox / Creative Commons BY NC