5.2 2. Be Accurate

Factual errors—especially those that are easily and clearly avoidable—do more to undermine trust than almost any other failing. Accuracy is the starting point for all solid information. While it’s understandable that errors occur, given deadline pressures, it’s disheartening that even in long-form journalism, such as magazines with human fact-checkers, some major and silly mistakes still make their way into articles. And it’s stunning that professionals get things wrong when a simple Google check could have prevented the goof.

But accuracy rests on the bedrock of thoroughness, which takes time. It means, simply put: Check your facts, then check them again. Know where to look to verify claims or to separate fact from fiction. And never, ever, spell someone’s name wrong.

In my first daily-newspaper job I spelled the name of a company wrong throughout an entire article, and didn’t discover this until after publication. My mistake was simple: I got it wrong on first use as I wrote the story, and then, with the misspelling ingrained in my head, repeated the mistake every subsequent time. I didn’t go back and check. The next morning, my editor called me into a small conference room, pointed out the error—the company’s owner had called the paper—and told me, “You’re better than this.” I felt about one foot tall. I abjectly apologized to the owner of the company, who took it with amazingly good humor, and I learned a lesson.

That story is relevant to all of us. If you’re applying for a job and your resume and/or cover letter are full of misspellings or outright inaccuracies, your application is likely to sink to the bottom of the pile. When people blog about me, one of the surest ways I know whether to pay attention is to see how they spelled my name. If they get it wrong, as so many do because they don’t check, I’m not terribly inclined to take the rest of what they say all that seriously.

Getting it right means asking questions until you think you may know too much. Smart journalists know, moreover, that there are no stupid questions. Sometimes there are lazy questions, such as asking someone for information that you could easily have looked up; asking a lazy question will not endear you to the person you’re interviewing. But if you don’t understand something, you should just ask for an explanation. I enjoy being the person at a press conference who asks an obvious question that other reporters are too embarrassed to ask, for fear of seeming ill-informed. I’d rather have someone snicker at me for being a newbie than get something wrong.

When I was writing my newspaper technology column, I frequently called sources back after interviews to read them a sentence or paragraph of what I planned to write, so they could tell me whether I’d succeeded in explaining their technical work in plain English. Usually I had it right, but sometimes a source would correct me or offer a nuance. This made the journalism better, and made my sources trust me more.

Accuracy online extends past publication. You should invite your readers to let you know when they spot an error. MediaBugs’ Scott Rosenberg and Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman are working on a Web initiative to encourage publishers to put a prominent link on their pages, giving readers a way to report errors in a standardized way. Mediactive.com will be part of this.

When you do make a mistake, you should obviously correct it. How to make corrections online is a new genre in itself. Here are several possibilities, in my order of preference:

  • For significant errors and updates, correct in context, with a note at the top or the bottom of the piece explaining what has been changed, and why.
  • For minor errors, such as a misspelled word, use the “strike” HTML tag to visibly put a line through the errant material —like this—and then add the correct word or words.
  • Correct in place and, in a note on the item, link to a corrections page that explains what happened.

The one kind of correction I never advise is the one too often used: an in-place fix with no indication that anything was ever wrong in the first place. Again, remember that mistakes happen, but acting honorably should always be the first order of business.

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