Don’t just check a story, prosecute it

1 Feb

In today’s fast-paced world, it can be difficult to find the time to be thorough. This is especially true for a daily newspaper. No matter what, the paper has an obligation to readers to produce a paper. So when all of the reporting and writing is done, sometimes there is barely time to check the story. But, this is the most important part of the writing process. With so many people, professionals and amateurs alike, contributing to the information wavelengths through the Web, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction. Staff writers might get a tip, but how do they know it is reliable? Well, they really don’t, until they check it out for themselves. Kiss trust goodbye. In today’s day and age where it so easy to be fooled, editors have to work extra hard to compensate. They can no longer just glance over a story, looking for only grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. No, today they must also scour it for discrepancies, holes, thoroughness and correctness. They must put the story on the stand and prosecute it.

The idea that an editor should tear the story apart gives a vivid picture of what editors today need to be doing. Reid MaCluggage, former managing editor of the Hartford Courant, makes excellent points on the subject of skeptical editing. He asserts that our biggest weakness as editors and journalists is unchallenged information. Yes, lately there have been dishonest reporters fabricating stories and giving the media a bad reputation. However, if there was the safeguard of intense scrutinization of each story, then maybe some of those hole-filled stories would never have been published. An editor is the final gatekeeper before a story goes to publication. They cannot simply rely on the reporter, no matter how reliable he or she has been in the past. Every story should be a blank slate for an editor. There should be no trust involved. MaCluggage’s statements that editors need to be more like lawyers and scientists is very astute. Editors need to put every story up on the stand and question it like a lawyer. They also need to assume each story is just a hypothesis, like a scientist, until they can prove it’s not. MaCluggage’s idea of having a devil’s advocate for every story was especially intriguing. It would be interesting to execute it in a newsroom and see if it did cause stories to be  edited more soundly.

The idea of cross-examining a story really drives home the point that editors need to always question, question, question. They need to question everything. Dates, names, numbers, quotes and sources need to be presumed questionable until the editor personally checks. Editor Pam Nelson says stresses the importance of checking facts in her blog and gives 10 tips for copy editors to think about when editing stories. Checking everything, even down to whether the person is still alive, may seem slightly excessive at first. It is easy to wonder how anyone would ever mistakenly write about a dead person like he or she was alive. But, it does happen and hearing accounts from actual editors reassures just how necessary intense scrutiny of stories is.

But, what about new mediums in journalism? There is currently discussion about Twitter in this respect. Do the same rules apply? Many times false information easily and quickly spreads on Twitter as breaking news. How sure do we have to be that something is completely correct before we put it on Twitter? Well, Twitter is slightly different since anyone can have a Twitter and tweet any type of information. It takes very little for rumors to easily catch fire in this online realm. But, Twitter is different from a newspaper. It is not assumed that everyone on Twitter is a professional or a credible source. The article makes a good point in saying that Twitter is more of a newsroom. Rumors start and are extinguished constantly. It is hard to compare Twitter to a newspaper because they are so different. As long as people understand the differences between the two types of information sources, they should be able to judge what they will consider truly reliable information.

In essence, there can never be too much editing or fact checking. The more done, the better. Editors must forget everything they know before reading a story. They must empty their minds and focus only on this new, clean slate of story in front of them. Was that the day the 14th Amendment was passed? Is that how you spell Barack Obama? An editor can never assume. They must assume the extreme; they must assume the story is not sound until every little thing checks out. Oh, and they also need to make sure the mechanics of the story are superb. It is a tough job, but if done right it can make a world of difference. Good editing ultimately leads to quality stories, readers’ trust and a well-respected reputation for the media as a whole. It might take a little more time and work to thoroughly edit a story, but considering what’s stake, it’s worth it.

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