September 11, 2010

From the editor: Fixing our mistakes

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Dear Friends of IowaWatch:

As those of you who have followed our adventure into the wilds of the non-profit journalism movement may know, last week was one we would like to forget. Our editing system – the one I created – failed.

Stephen Berry

We published some fact errors, including a serious misquote. Now, we want to do something about that, and I want your help.

The errors appeared in a major explanatory project of vital importance to the public, which means more is at stake here than IowaWatch’s wounded ego. I will not go into the grubby details again, but I invite you see them for yourselves. Our explanation of the major error is splattered across our front page on top of the current lead story – “Same-Sex Marriages in Iowa Colored by Tradition” – where it has been since Thursday afternoon immediately after I confirmed that the quote was erroneous.

The thrust of the story remains solidly intact, and our reporter did some excellent work on that very complex, emotion-laden subject. We worked hard on the research, the writing, editing and in the gathering of the multimedia elements. It took months. We devoted that time and energy, because we felt the debate over same-sex marriage gets to the heart and soul of what this country is all about.

This issue deserves solid reporting conducted as objectively as human frailties will allow. We did that with this story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter now, because the errors will make you – our readers – question its credibility, which in turn diminishes its service to the public good.

Working for the public good is our only reason for existence. For that reason, we owe you more than apology. We owe you an explanation of what we intend to do fix the problem. Our plan is still a work in progress, but I want to share our early draft with you and call for help in writing the final one.

I particularly would like to hear from those of you who belong or once belonged to that sadly under-appreciated specialty called ‘copy editor.’ [By, the way, I am going to steal this moment to send my belated thanks to all of those sainted souls on the copy desk who saved my butt so many times during the 33 years I worked as a reporter]. But I also need to hear from reporters, because all of us have made mistakes, and from those mistakes you probably can devise some excellent ideas on what it would take to prevent you from making them again. And finally, I want to hear from English teachers, editors and just careful readers.

To get your brains working, take a look at the draft of my plan.

Revising the IowaWatch Editing System

    1. Meet with any reporter who commits an error to deconstruct precisely how the error was committed and discuss how the reporter will prevent that kind of mistake from happening again.
    2. Require reporters to submit all notes, documents and interviews when they submit their draft. Notes that pertain to specific facts, quotations and statements that are in the story will be underlined or highlighted.
    3. Continue our in-house footnote requirement. This policy has been in effect since our first project, which was published on May 29. It requires the reporter to submit two versions – one version proposed for publication and one with the footnotes. Each note contains the source for the fact with all pertinent information needed to allow the editor to find it, dates of interviews with notebook page numbers where the quotation is located. The footnotes for human sources also must contain their contact information.
    4. Although we have always required reporters to conduct line-by-line fact checks before submitting a draft and again after the final editing, I have failed to adequately explain what I mean by that. Henceforth, it means using a printed copy of their story to circle every fact and quote in every line, and then going back to their notes, records and documents to identify the specific material from which the fact came. At that point, they will be expected to consciously re-evaluate their use of the material and decide whether they have any doubt about the accuracy of their notes or their understanding of the facts. Then the old saw – “when in doubt, check it out or leave it out” – will go into play. Line-by-line editing also must include all cut lines, charts, graphs, etc.
    5. Engage a volunteer assigned strictly as a fact-checker to match the footnotes with the reporter’s notes, contact quoted sources to confirm the accuracy of quotes, read original source material to verify the accuracy of paraphrased and summary statements, check the spelling of every name [including their own bylines] and agency mentioned in the story, and confirm the job titles and fields of expertise of every source.
    6. Submit the final edited version – the one that will be published – to the scrutiny of a final reader who has journalism or copyediting experience and who has never seen any of the earlier versions.
  • Now, have at it everybody. And send me some advice. Better still, call me. My number is 319-335-3331.

    Warmest regards,

    Stephen J. Berry,

    Interim Executive Director – Editor

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    3 thoughts on “From the editor: Fixing our mistakes

    1. Dear Steve,

      I’m deeply moved by this note you published and I can truly feel your regret and frustration. Sorry for adding some of my thoughts – rather than being able to help – I was wondering if I could post some of my doubts I encountered during various reporting occasions as a new reporter who just stepped in the industry.

      Public affairs reporting – the kind of reporting that I believe matters the most to the public – is truly something I believe in. And I believe people who are in this business for years really don’t treat this just as a job but firmly hold a belief that our stories can makes some changes to the society – no matter small or big – positive changes.

      I remember what you taught us in our 170 Investigative Class about the notion and mythologies of “objectivity.” As a young reporter, I sometimes find that even before I engage in a major project, I’ve already compelled by some strong “emotion” deeply inside that makes me decide to do something about it. I would call it “story idea” or “angle.” Therefore, I realize that I’ve in fact already formed my opinions or judgment prior to the story, subconsciously, meaning that I don’t even realize that when I do reporting.

      During my reporting, I would probably correct some of my original thoughts when facing obvious facts, but when there are vague facts, my eyes and ears probably leave out those that don’t conform to my “subconscious,” or my brain understands certain things in the way that the subconscious I would like to understand. That’s how mistake is made. It’s bias, but what can I do? It’s such “bias” that makes me want to write and report.

      I’m sorry for posting some non-constructive comments here but just would like to share some of my thoughts from my own experiences.

      Best wishes,

      Cynthia Feng

    2. Pingback: No apocalypse, just improvement | How to Train a Watchdog

    3. Steve,

      Nice post. I wanted to comment IN CAPS BELOW on each step of your proposed editing system:

      1. Meet with any reporter who commits an error to deconstruct precisely how the error was committed and discuss how the reporter will prevent that kind of mistake from happening again.

      THIS IS THE ONLY REAL FIX TO PROBLEMATIC REPORTING. WE USED TO DO THIS AT UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL. IT WAS A GREAT TRAINING EXPERIENCE.

      2. Require reporters to submit all notes, documents and interviews when they submit their draft. Notes that pertain to specific facts, quotations and statements that are in the story will be underlined or highlighted.

      THIS IS A STANDARD FACT CHECK. ALTHOUGH NOT REQUIRED, I DO THIS WITH MY REPORTS FOR THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION.I ALSO PUBLISH ONLINE THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW IN CASE READERS BELIEVE I HAVE QUOTED OUT OF CONTEXT. I ALSO EMBED A LINK IN THE REPORT NOTING VIEWERS CAN READ INTERVIEWS HERE. EXAMPLE: http://www.livingethics.org/SL.pdf

      3. Continue our in-house footnote requirement. This policy has been in effect since our first project, which was published on May 29. It requires the reporter to submit two versions – one version proposed for publication and one with the footnotes. Each note contains the source for the fact with all pertinent information needed to allow the editor to find it, dates of interviews with notebook page numbers where the quotation is located. The footnotes for human sources also must contain their contact information.

      SIMILAR TO WHAT I DO FOR REPORTS IN THE CHRONICLE: http://www.interpersonal-divide.org/clickers.pdf

      4. Although we have always required reporters to conduct line-by-line fact checks before submitting a draft and again after the final editing, I have failed to adequately explain what I mean by that. Henceforth, it means using a printed copy of their story to circle every fact and quote in every line, and then going back to their notes, records and documents to identify the specific material from which the fact came. At that point, they will be expected to consciously re-evaluate their use of the material and decide whether they have any doubt about the accuracy of their notes or their understanding of the facts. Then the old saw – “when in doubt, check it out or leave it out” – will go into play. Line-by-line editing also must include all cut lines, charts, graphs, etc.

      GOOD ADVICE.

      5. Engage a volunteer assigned strictly as a fact-checker to match the footnotes with the reporter’s notes, contact quoted sources to confirm the accuracy of quotes, read original source material to verify the accuracy of paraphrased and summary statements, check the spelling of every name [including their own bylines] and agency mentioned in the story, and confirm the job titles and fields of expertise of every source.

      THIS IS TIME-INTENSIVE AND MIGHT BE USED FOR SPOT CHECKS OR FOR STORIES WHERE POTENTIAL LIBEL EXISTS.

      6. Submit the final edited version – the one that will be published – to the scrutiny of a final reader who has journalism or copyediting experience and who has never seen any of the earlier versions.

      ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA.

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