It’s a cliché to say clichés exist for a reason. As journalists, we’re supposed to avoid them like the, um, plague. But it’s useful to have a catchy phrase that can stick in someone’s mind, particularly if you’re trying to spread knowledge or change behaviour.
This week I began cataloguing some of my own sayings about accuracy — you can consider them aspiring clichés — and other phrases I find helpful or instructive in preparation for a workshop I’m giving with The Huffington Post’s Mandy Jenkins at next week’s Online News Association conference. Our session is called B.S. Detection for Online Journalists. The goal is to equip participants with tools, tips, and knowledge to get things right, and weed out misinformation and hoaxes before they spread them.
So, with apologies to Bill Maher, I offer some new, some old, and some wonderfully clichéd rules for doing accurate journalism. Keep these in your head and they’ll help you do good work.
The initial, mistaken information will be retweeted more than any subsequent correction — I’ve started calling this the Law of Incorrect Tweets. The point is to emphasize that a piece of misinformation is often far more appealing and interesting than the subsequent correction. People are therefore more inclined to retweet or like a false news report than to pay attention to any subsequent correction. Be careful with the information gets pushed out, and be diligent about repeatedly offering a correction. This is especially true with social media, but the principle—invest time in spreading corrections—is universal.
A journalist is only as good as her sources — We often encounter a source who spins a great story, only to later discover he or she was lying to us. Or, well, spinning. Since we rely on sources to build our reporting and inform us and the public, the quality and diversity of sources is hugely important. So make the effort to find the best sources possible. This is where the next favorite saying of mine comes in to play.
Verification before dissemination — Our job is to apply the discipline of verification to everything we gather. That means checking what a source tells you before putting it out there. It means holding off on that hot bit of news to make an extra phone call or bit of checking before sending it out. It’s the core of what we do. Too often we are enticed by the glory promised by dissemination. Which leads me to my next rule
People will forget who got it first, but they remember who got it wrong — Scoops are almost never as impactful and glory-filled as they seem. Apart from Woodward and Bernstein, who were turned into Hollywood characters, how many other journalists are widely known among the general population thanks to a big scoop? I would wager very few. But names like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke seem to endure in the public’s mind. So too do the names of news organizations who push out false or incorrect information about a big story. For example, how many people had heard of What’s Trending before CBS pulled its backing over an erroneous tweet from the show? When you sacrifice verification for a scoop, you set yourself up to win the worst kind of glory.
Failure sucks but instructs — This is a saying from management professor and bestselling author Bob Sutton. He lauded the value of failure in a post for the Harvard Business Review: “In fact, there is no learning without failure — and this includes failing at dangerous things like surgery and flying planes. Discovery of the moves that work well is always accompanied by discovery of moves that don’t.” We must do everything we can to avoid factual errors and spreading misinformation. But, at the same time, we must remember that we will make mistakes. And that’s when we have to move past the shame and anger and figure out how to turn our mistakes into valuable lessons. That’s how you stop making the same mistakes, how you get better.