• Specialized information: Ask Howard Baker’s question from the Watergate hearings of beloved memory: What did he know, and when did he know it? Sudden access to biographical details, historical information, ecclesiastical terminology or scientific or medical expertise has to have come from somewhere. Insist on an explanation of the source.
• Dubious sources: Any article based on a single source is automatically suspect — how can you tell that the source wasn’t lying? Where’s the confirmation? Similarly, anything based on second- or third-hand sources demands scrutiny. In addition, readers are justifiably suspicious of anonymous sources. Even when anonymity has been granted for good reason, such as the source’s reasonable fear of physical or economic injury, the writer should be obliged to reveal the source to the assigning editor, acquire independent supporting information, and give the reader as much information as is prudent about the anonymous source’s credibility.
• Improbabilities: When Jack Kelley filed his famous story with USA Today about seeing, in the aftermath of a bombing, human heads rolling down the street, their eyelids still blinking, it would have been a good thing for the paper if an editor had said, “What the hell?” and followed up. In journalism, as in investment offers, if it looks too good to be true …
Here are a couple of other pieces of advice for editors:
• Beware of last minute, Hail Mary changes. If a reporter is struggling with a story and suddenly turns in something with top-notch quotes, solid research etc., you should be suspicious. How did things suddenly go so right?
• Open up the process. Encourage reporters to expand on an article by producing a blog post that lays out, and links to, their research, or that presents additional quotes from interviewees. “If everything we do is out there for the public to see, we’ll have an incentive to stay honest, and we might just earn back some of the trust that people seem to have lost in journalists over the past few decades,” wrote Michael Becker.
This is by no means a final guide; I hope reporters, editors and others will share their knowledge. Consider the above to be a starting point for discussion. What advice am I missing? How could these tips be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments or contact me directly.
Correction of the Week
“I am sorry to disappoint all the readers who wished to apply for the position, but New Orleans does not employ a ‘sex assessor.’ That was a misprint in Wednesday’s column. It should have read ‘tax assessor.’ Slips don’t come much more Freudian than that.” – Times-Picayune