Craig Silverman of Regret the Error is leading a workshop for TBD Community Network members (and staff and anyone else in the Washington area who’s interested) this evening at American University’s School of Communication. As supplemental reading for those attending the workshop, I’m posting this handout updated I developed for my Accuracy First workshop when I was presenting ethics seminars for the American Press Institute (updated somewhat). The original version of this handout was initially posted on the No Train, No Gain website.
While this handout is geared to journalists, we encourage all members of the network to follow these practices and those Craig teaches, regardless of whether they consider themselves journalists. Anyone providing information to the public should seek to ensure accuracy to maintain credibility.
In pursuit of excellence, journalists seek to develop lots of sophisticated skills, such as investigative reporting, narrative writing, social media and video. Accuracy isn’t as glamorous as those skills but without accuracy, they become worthless. Accuracy is the foundation upon which journalists must build all other skills. Ensuring accuracy involves several steps:
- Asking effective questions.
- Taking accurate notes.
- Gathering source documents.
- Questioning information.
- Verifying information.
- Fact-checking your content.
Get the names right
Screw up a name and readers who know how that person spells the name will not trust anything else you write. And the source will certainly question your ability or commitment to getting anything else right.
Ask every character to spell her name. Any time you have access to a character whose name you will be using, ask the character to spell his name for you, however common the spelling (if it seems like a stupid question, make a self-deprecating joke or a reassuring comment about your dedication to accuracy). Print the name clearly in your notebook as spelled, then read it back to the character as you’ve written it. If you assume you know how to spell the name and just read your presumed spelling back to the character, you risk error by at least two means: the character is not fully engaged and isn’t paying attention when you spell the name wrong or the character does not hear you well, whether because of an impairment, accent or background noise, and confirms an incorrect spelling. Asking “usual spelling?” presumes that you and the character have the same understanding of what’s “usual” and that you heard the character’s pronunciation correctly. Maybe the character answers you “usual spelling.” Still seek confirmation: “John with an H?” or “Steven with a V?” Better yet, spell out the name and use the question: “John with an H, J-o-h-n?” In addition to ensuring accuracy, this redundant exercise underscores to the character that he’s talking for the record and that you’re taking notes of what he says and planning to print his name. If you are recording, still write the name down in a notebook, computer or cell phone. You should not assume that the recording will be audible.
Get it in writing. Ask the character to write her name in the notebook for you. Then read it back to her to make sure you can read her handwriting. Ask for a business card.
Check it out even when you get it in writing. Don’t presume that a business card or a document or a name plate on the source’s desk is spelled correctly. I had a colleague at API whose name plate on his door was spelled wrong. He didn’t notice the error until I pointed it out to him. I let people copy and reproduce my handouts for newsroom training sessions. Sometimes the person who’s reproducing does some introductory material at the top and my name gets misspelled Buttrey. You could have that document and presume you have my name in writing, but all that means is that you have it spelled wrong in writing. A reporter at The Oregonian received a business card from a source who deals regularly with Asian clients. The reporter didn’t realize and the source didn’t say that the person spelled his name phonetically on the card, to help clients pronounce it correctly.
Check resources. Check the Internet (Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, a source’s organization’s website) and other resources (your clips, if you work at a newspaper) about a person, but don’t presume they are always correct. I had a source tell me his name was spelled “Lawler” but our paper always spelled it “Lawlor” (and a check of our clips showed that we frequently did misspell it).
Nail it down. If you’re covering an event rather than an interview, get a program or agenda beforehand. Try to locate the main people and ask them if their names are spelled correctly in the program. If someone you don’t know speaks or does something during the event, try to get to him as quickly as possible and get his name. If that is not possible, ask someone who would know. Then try to run the person down by phone or email to verify. Your notebook should have each name spelled right, verified by the character. If possible you should have at least one printed or digital source with the name also on it.
Get contact information. Either after you get the name or at the end of the interview, ask the source for contact information: home, work and cell phone numbers, e-mail address, Twitter username (if any). Again, repeat these back to the character to make sure your notes are accurate. Contact information is important when you need to check facts with the character later.
Get the title right. After you get the person’s name, ask the title and affiliation. Some people might have multiple titles and multiple affiliations. Again, repeat back to the character what you have written in your notebook. When you write about this person again, don’t assume the same title(s) remain valid. People get promoted, demoted and change jobs. Terms expire. People get elected and defeated. Ask what the current title is.
How do you know that?
Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, blamed her inaccurate reporting about weapons of mass destruction on her sources. “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong,” she wrote. Don’t ever buy or use that excuse. The content has your name on it. You are responsible for the information in your story, however you attribute it. Do all you can to evaluate the source and verify the information.
Get to the original source. When a character gives you a fact in an interview, get used to asking, “How do you know that?” This gets you to the source of the information. The person you’re talking to may be mistaken or lying or not remember the complete story. Asking “How do you know that?” helps you find the best source for the information. If you’re hearing a story second- or third-hand, trace it back to its origin. If someone is citing statistics to you, get the report that is the source of those statistics. Then you can verify, add context and find more stats.
Evaluate the source. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this person is: Does the source hold a position that would give her official access to this information? Is the source well enough connected to learn this information unofficially? Has this person given you reliable (or unreliable) information before? What is the source’s motivation for talking to you? Is the source willing to go on the record and stand behind her story publicly? Who else knows this? Who else knows more about this?
Evaluate the information. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this information is: Does your source know whether this is theory, speculation, rumor or fact? If the information is factual, is it current? Is it complete? What is the context?
Challenge the information. Who might disbelieve this information? Test your information by sharing it with someone who might want to refute it. If this person can’t refute it, that’s almost a form of confirmation (but not quite, unless the testing source knows for sure that it’s true and does confirm). If you get conflicting stories, challenge both. Follow them to their sources. Seek confirmation for both. Try to find the truth. Or at least present the conflict rather than buying one story as true.
Crowdsource. Ask the community through your website and social media to help you provide information and sources that can help you get accurate information.
Audio and video recording
To record or not to record. Audio or video recorders can help you quote someone accurately. They also provide multimedia clips. They do not, however, ensure accuracy. A reporter who is recording might get lazy or sloppy in taking notes and might not have accurate notes if mumbling or background noise makes a recording inaudible or if the recorder malfunctions or runs out of memory. Recording is especially helpful in these situations:
- Interviews that you know could be contentious. Recording the interview might head off claims that you misquoted the character (and help you be sure that you don’t).
- Interviews with a character you know to be a fast talker.
- Interviews involving interpretation from a foreign language.
- Interviews in your language with someone who has a heavy accent.
- When lengthy dialogue or a Q & A format will be important. Few reporters can take accurate verbatim notes at length.
- If you are inexperienced at taking notes and know your notes are not very good, recording can help while you are gaining experience.
If you record:
- Take notes as if you weren’t recording, because sometime the recorder will fail, and at the worst possible time.
- Make sure you have plenty of memory and fresh batteries.
- Choose a quiet setting. Background noise in a restaurant or at a ballgame or political rally will drown out the quote you’re looking for.
- Ask if the character minds you recording. Sometimes a camera or audio recorder makes a character uneasy. Say that the recorder helps ensure your accuracy. If the character would prefer not being recorded, respect her wishes and take good notes.
- If your recorder displays time or a counter, set it at 0 before you start recording. Check the clock or counter now and then, writing the time in your notebook. Be sure to write down the time especially after a key quote that you might want to use. That way you can find quotes quickly.
Don’t let recording become a time-waster. Too many reporters transcribe their recorded interviews, ensuring the accuracy of lots of information they will never publish. Write your story from your notes, just using the recording to check the exact quotes and facts you use in the story. The time you save will help you ensure the accuracy of the information you use.
Taking accurate notes
Don’t write everything down. You are not a court reporter, trying to transcribe every word of an interview or event. You’re a journalist, seeking to capture the important and interesting essence of the interview or event. Start making your judgments about what’s interesting or important as you take notes. Don’t waste energy or paper taking notes on things that you know aren’t important or interesting enough for the story. That way you’re ready to take quick, accurate notes when the source says something important, rather than always trying to catch up. Wasted notes also waste more time later as you’re looking through your notes for important information or strong quotes.
Distinguish between information and quotes. When you’re gathering information, you must get numbers, names, spellings, sequences and meaning correct. But the speaker’s exact words usually aren’t important, because information-bearing quotes usually aren’t strong quotes. Concentrate on getting the facts correct, rather than the words with which the speaker delivered them.
Concentrate on the strong quotes. When someone says something that conveys strong emotion or opinion, or when you hear some revealing dialogue, take verbatim notes. Echo the speaker in your mind as you write, committing the statement(s) to memory, so your memory will have the words as your hand catches up.
Slow the speaker down. If the speaker is giving information, slow her down by asking for details or sources. How do you know that? Are you sure? How’s that spelled? Is that an approximation or the exact amount? Do you have some documentation? Steve Jordon of the Omaha World-Herald advises, “I don’t hesitate to ask someone to pause for a second while you write down a quote verbatim. People appreciate efforts to be accurate.”
Echo, echo, echo. Slow the speaker down and get confirmation for your notes by echoing the speaker, especially about important facts: “You said 15 million, right, one-five million, with an M, right?”
Rephrase. Maybe the character said something important, but it followed a powerful quote you were still scribbling down and you’re not sure you got the second quote. Repeat what you thought you heard back to the character: “Let me make sure I understand this correctly. Did you say …?” This gives you confirmation and buys you time to take the notes. And maybe he will elaborate or say it stronger.
Ask throwaway questions. When you start falling behind, ask a “throwaway” question about general background that you already have or personal information you don’t care much about. This gives you a chance to catch up on your notes before you forget the important or interesting things the character just said.
Develop a shorthand. Each story or beat will present abbreviations you can use to streamline note-taking, such as initials of people or organizations. You also can develop abbreviations and contractions of common words, perhaps omitting vowels or using a single letter with a prefix or suffix. Beware, though, that your shorthand can also result in some mistakes. If you’re writing about Afghanistan and start using an abbreviation “Af,” you might be confused later, wondering whether that means “Afghanistan,” “Afghan” or “Afghani.”
Note your questions. With a word or two and a question mark, note what questions you asked. Remembering your questions will help you recall the context of the remarks.
Identify speakers. If you’re interviewing multiple characters at once or covering an event with multiple speakers, come up with a code to keep the speakers clear in your notes. Initials work, but beware of speakers with the same initials. If you have multiple speakers at an event and don’t have names, write physical descriptions and come up with initials based on them: B for the man in the blue shirt; T for the tall woman, etc. Then get the ID’s straight as quickly as possible after the event. Make sure you write down your code so you don’t forget who was saying what. Don’t use racist, sexist or otherwise insulting codes. You don’t want to have to explain that in court if you get sued and your notes become evidence.
Review your notes. Immediately after the event or interview, review your notes. Do this even before you get back to the newsroom, when you’re in your car or in the lobby of the building where the event took place. Where your scribbling is nearly illegible, write the words out neatly while they’re still fresh in your mind. Fill out the partial quotes while you still remember them. Identify points to check with other sources. If a particular passage or a possible lead came to you during the interview, write it down immediately.
Joe Brennan of the Omaha World-Herald advises: “As often as practical, type notes into the computer. It’s then easy to move a great quote, or a reasonably well composed graf, into your text as you write.” Be sure that you label sources clearly in your notes. And when you’re cutting and pasting from notes, be sure to type the source and quotation marks before you paste in a quote, so you avoid any risk of accidental plagiarism.
Write immediately. Even if you’re not ready to write the full story, write what you have so far. Writing while the notes and memory are fresh greatly improves accuracy.
Verify using other sources
Who else knows? Seek other people who are knowledgeable about this situation. They can confirm or refute what you’ve been told. They can fill in gaps. Seek to resolve differences. Again, ask them how they know. Beware the echo chamber: You aren’t receiving confirmation if your second source only knows the information because the first source told her.
Seek documentation. Find official data, records and reports that can confirm, refute or expand upon what you have been told. Photographs or videos might help you verify some details. If you are writing about a court hearing you didn’t attend, get the official transcript.
Seek recordings. If video or audio recordings are available of an event you are writing about, see if you can watch or listen to them.
Go online. Seek verification (or original information) at the official website of the organization you’re writing about and websites of agencies that regulate the organization and interest groups that monitor the organization. Be as wary of information you find on the internet as you would of any other source of information. Especially be wary of information from sites that don’t verify their information, such as Wikipedia. But check Wikipedia. It might raise some questions you will have to verify with other sources.
Use databases. You can use proprietary databases such as Lexis-Nexis, if your organization subscribes, to check some facts. You also can reach many public or proprietary databases through public libraries and their websites. Other databases, such as voter registration, driver’s license, professional licensing agencies and property tax records, can also verify. Many of these are available online, depending on your jurisdiction. Know what databases are available in your newsroom, your community and online to help with verification.
Seek understanding. Make sure you understand what you’re writing about. Seek context. Seek explanations for inconsistencies. Seek another perspective. Ask the source. A stupid question is not as embarrassing as a stupid error.
Check your facts
After you’ve finished a draft of your story, check your facts and be sure of the accuracy of every fact.
Check every name. When you’re finished with the story, check the spelling of every name. Check against your notes, but that’s not enough. Check against a written source, too: a business card, legal document, phone book, website or public record database. If you find a conflict, check again with the source. Check the title, too.
Check every number. Double-check each number, too. Again, your notes are not enough. Check documents, reports, databases, web sites. Do the math. Then do it again, especially if you’re not good at math. If you don’t understand the numbers, you can’t double-check them. Ask the source or some one who does understand the numbers to explain them and/or check them.
Check the quotes. Double check the quotes against your notes and/or recordings. Check word for word. If the quote has a “not” in it, be sure that it made it into your story (and that it says “not,” rather than “now,” an easy typo that changes the meaning entirely). Reading aloud is sometimes a good way to spot the dropped or misspelled word.
Ask, if you’re not sure. If you can’t make out something in your notes that you think was important, call the character back. You can say, “I thought this was what you said, but I just wanted to be sure.” She may confirm, correct or elaborate. And she might tell you a couple things she thought of after the interview, stimulated in thought or memory by your questions.
Check technical matters. If you’re writing about technical matters, such as scientific or legal matters, you probably have simplified for the reader. Run your description past an expert to make sure you haven’t misunderstood or confused something important.
Check all layers of the story. Increasingly, journalists are telling stories in layers, with much of the information of a story contained in graphics, fact boxes, rails, breakouts, cutlines, videos, interactives and so forth. And typically, not as many eyes see these layers as see the story. Be sure to verify the information in these elements as vigorously as you verify information in the story.
You won’t be able to nail down every fact. Be transparent in acknowledging what you don’t know, and ask the community to help you complete the story.
Openly invite users to report errors and unclear material to you, then correct openly, crediting the readers who help you improve your accuracy.
Update: I did some minor editing and updating to this post for use in a class in January 2016.