“Never assume anything!”: Tips for greater accuracy

In light of my recent blog posts about errors and fact-checking, I thought I’d link to some resources to help writers improve their accuracy. Though some of these sources were written for journalists, much of the advice applies equally well to anyone who researches, writes, or edits. It’s important to remember that writers are ultimately responsible for their own work, and they can no longer just assume that their mistakes will be caught and corrected by copy editors or fact-checkers.

This list of “44 Tips for Greater Accuracy” is by Frank E. Fee Jr., the Knight Professor of Editing at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. There are two versions of Fee’s tips on the web: the first is a concise list, and the second has additional explanatory comments by Fee. You should read the whole thing, but here are some of his more important and universal tips:

  • Always do the math. Don’t rely on another person’s figures…
  • Never disregard a question that has been raised by another reader [or] by that small, sometimes indistinct voice in the back of your head…
  • Never assume anything!
  • We have to see the forest and the trees, so always read (at least) once for content and effect [and] read (at least) once for the mechanical errors (grammar, punctuation, keyboarding).
  • Always use all of the tools available to you (dictionary, stylebook, spell-checker, reference books, etc.). Don’t be too busy or too proud to check a fact.
  • Never trust anything in the [newspaper] clips. How do you know the first story was correct? Do you know for sure corrections caught up with the library clip or archive copy? Has something changed since that story was written?
  • Always get another pair of eyes to look at copy…
  • Always analyze any correction you see — yours or another’s. Ask: How did the error occur? How could it have been avoided? What would I do next time?
  • Always give any sensitive, unusual or tricky material one last look.
  • Always go back and read the full sentence if you’ve changed a word or two in copy. Watch for subject-verb agreement, missing info, duplication, etc.
  • In doubt? Always call the reporter, wire service, or even the source. We’re after the truth, not just a plausible narrative…
  • Always be careful how you ask questions when checking a fact. Leading questions may lead you into trouble. Ask open questions that ensure complete, open answers.
  • Never commit to print anything that you don’t understand. If you don’t know, what are the chances readers will? In pinning down your own understanding, you may: learn something; find a better way to say it; find a more accurate way to say it.
  • Never correct an error until you’re sure you made one. Retrace your steps. Don’t take someone else’s word that copy is wrong; check it out. This will help you discover why the error was made.
  • Always remember: Errors can come in clusters. Finding one may not find them all. There may be others.
  • “Fee’s Theorem”: “The most severe error in any one passage of a story will divert attention from the less severe errors in the same passage. The bigger the error, the more likely it will be the only one caught at that reading. Subsequent readings will tend to continue to eliminate only successive next-most-glaring errors.”

Accuracy First (for reporters)” is a handout that was developed as part of the American Press Institute’s seminar, “Our Readers Are Watching.” Here are a few highlights:

Ensuring accuracy involves several steps:

  • Asking effective questions.
  • Taking accurate notes.
  • Gathering source documents.
  • Questioning information.
  • Verifying information.
  • Fact-checking your story.

Get the names right

Screw up a name and readers who know how that person spells the name will not trust anything else you write. And the source will certainly question your ability or commitment to getting anything else right…

How do you know that?

Judith Miller of the New York Times blamed her inaccurate reporting on weapons of mass destruction on her sources. “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong,” she wrote. Don’t ever buy or use that excuse. The story has your name on it. You are responsible for the information in your story, however you attribute it. Do all you can to evaluate the source and verify the information.

Get to the source. When a character gives you a fact in an interview, get used to asking, “How do you know that?” This gets you to the source of the information. The person you’re talking to may be mistaken or lying or not remember the complete story. Asking “How do you know that?” helps you find the best source for the information. If you’re hearing a story second- or third-hand, trace it back to its origin. If someone is citing statistics to you, get the report that is the source of those statistics. Then you can verify, add context and find more stats.

Evaluate the source. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this person is: Does the source hold a position that would give her official access to this information? Is the source well enough connected to learn this information unofficially? Has this person given you reliable (or unreliable) information before? Has this person given you inaccurate information before? What is the source’s motivation for talking to you? Is the source willing to go on the record and stand behind her story publicly? Who else knows this? Who else knows more about this?

Evaluate the information. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this information is: Does your source know whether this is theory, speculation, rumor or fact? If the information is factual, is it current? Is it complete? What is the context?…

Verify using other sources

Who else knows? Seek other people who are knowledgeable about this situation. They can confirm or refute what you’ve been told. They can fill in gaps. Seek to resolve differences. Again, ask them how they know. Beware the echo chamber: You aren’t receiving confirmation if your second source only knows the information because the first source told her.

Seek documentation. Find official data, records and reports that can confirm, refute or expand upon what you have been told. If you are writing about a court hearing you didn’t attend, get the official transcript. Photographs might help you verify some details…

Go online. Seek verification (or original information) at the official web site of the organization you’re writing about and web sites of agencies that regulate the organization and interest groups that monitor the organization. Be as wary of information you find on the internet as you would of any other source of information. Especially be wary of information from sites that don’t verify their information, such as Wikipedia…

Chip Scanlan’s article on the Poynter Online website, “Getting it Right: A Passion for Accuracy,” contains advice and links to other sources.

Sarah Harrison Smith’s 2004 book The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting It Right has information on reading for accuracy, what to check, researching facts, and assessing the credibility of reference sources.

If you know of other useful sources you’d like to recommend, please do so in the comments to this post.

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