One of the more unlikely people to offer some solid accuracy adviceover the past year was Ben Huh, the CEO of the Cheezburger Network. Here’s what he told me about the public’s expectation of accuracy from journalists:
They expect you to not get somebody’s name incorrect or to create horrendously bad headlines. We have a higher standard of expectation from journalists, so when they don’t meet it it’s funny—like watching a monkey fall off a tree.
Matt DeRienzo, publisher of The Register Citizen, an 8,000-circulation paper serving Litchfield County, Conn., spoke with me about his paper’s decision to put a small “Fact Check” box at the bottom of every article. It includes this encouragement for readers: “See wrong or inaccurate information in a story. Tell us here.” Here’s what he told me:
Readers should not have to come knocking on your door to try to find an editor or reporter. It should be a much more open process than that This is just being very clear to readers [and saying] that we want you to send in errors, we’re listening, there is someone on the other end.
I wrote a column about the concept of crowdsourced verification, and used Ushahidi’s work in Haiti after this year’s earthquake as a case study. (That column also highlighted SwiftRiver, a new product built to meet the challenge of this form of verification.) Here’s what Jaroslav Valuch, the project manager for Ushahidi Haiti, told me:
These days, forget about having 100 percent verified information—but you can have trusted sources or things with high probability.
Along those same lines, I dedicated a column to the examination of an errant tweet from MSNBC.com’s @BreakingNews account that set off a cascade of retweets. MSNBC journalist Alex Johnson and I unpacked the tweet and its aftermath to draw some lessons from the incident. Johnson also offered an interesting explanation of MSNBC.com’s approach to running that Twitter account:
The buzz word around here is that @BreakingNews is iterative journalism, so [we try to make sure] you can see the process, and if we screw up you will see the screw up, and we owe it to you to explain how and why that happened. The more we let users and followers in on how that’s evolving, the better it is for us and for the entire form.
During a Q&A with Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, he highlighted a challenge the paper faced in trying to quickly issue corrections for mistakes in online content:
Corrections for obvious errors in online stories often get delayed while editors wait for the correction to be approved for publication in the newspaper. As I wrote, that’s “unacceptable” because it increases the odds that inaccurate information will go viral.
There was a lot of discussion this year about the National Enquirer, thanks to its scoop about John Edwards’s affair. I spoke with Barry Levine, the executive editor/director of news at the publication, to see how it practices verification. He ended up listing a variety of ways in which the Enquirer tries to check its facts, including this:
If we have very revealing information about a celebrity or newsmaker, we will have the source sit down and be administered a polygraph test based on specific questions about what they told us.
The plight of copy editors at newspapers and other publications was a much-discussed topic in 2009. I decided to shine a light on a less-discussed group of newspaper employees who have also seen their numbers thinned in recent years: research librarians, also known as news librarians. I wrote about their role—and disappearance—in the newsroom. Here’s how Leslie Norman, a former news librarian at the Wall Street Journal, explained the importance of what they do:
Reporters are on deadline and they want to do things as quickly as possible. Over years, they’ve come to feel, ‘I can do my own research, I don’t need an intermediary anymore.’ Some of the problem with that is they don’t have time to get the best research if they do it themselves. Also, because of the amount of information out there, they may not have the understanding or wherewithal to go through and filter out what’s good and what isn’t.
This quote from a guest post by entrepreneur Ben Elowitz on PaidContent.org inspired me to write a column in response:
The old rules of quality prize correctness and are unforgivingly intolerant of errors in reporting. They are deeply invested in rigorous fact-checking; multiple source corroboration; and correct spelling of proper nouns. I’ve given interviews to old-media outlets where I’ve spent more time on the phone with the fact checker than with the reporter.