10 Lessons for Newsrooms: On Accuracy and Apologies

It’s easy to point a finger at a student news site that published inaccurate information. It’s humbling to see the managing editor there take responsibility and resign. It’s harder for the pros who run established newsrooms to look in the mirror and acknowledge where we’ve made mistakes. Harder still to share those lessons with our staffs and our community. Editors who takes those steps, however, build trust with readers. There will be time this coming week to carefully review what happened in your newsroom on Saturday evening, what might have been done differently, where you fell short and where you hit the mark.

Jeff Sonderman at Poynter has a good overview of the original error and correction about Joe Paterno’s condition. This post is about the second ring of error, the newsrooms that repeated the inaccurate information. There were many.

As I watched the error and the correct information spread across my Twitter and Facebook feeds and on a range of news sites, I saw problems along 10 decision points, five that came before a news organization published the first, inaccurate information and five more after it was published. In the days ahead, others will describe their own lessons learned. I offer this in the hope that it will inspire some thoughtful reflection — and improved newsroom procedures.
10 Errors, 10 Lessons: What Not to do in Your Newsroom
When You Think You Are Right
1. Limit sourcing. If one outlet reports a development, you have a choice. You can run with that or you can pause a beat and see what others are also saying. On a national story with several established authoritative channels of information (beat writers closest to the topic, family members who tweet) there are many choices.
2. Omit attribution.  In the Paterno case, two national news organizations saw the original false report from Onward State and repeated it without attribution or without referencing other possible sources of information. Attribution to what you are reporting is only half the job. A newsroom can convey a signal of caution by reporting and attributing what it does not know. For example: While one media outlet in State College has reported this, nothing has come from the hospital or family members since a mid-afternoon statement.
3. Fail to link. If your reporting is based on a published account, link to it. If it is based on documents from officials that are online, link. Readers are smart. Many of them will follow the link and judge for themselves. Even more of them will come to trust a newsroom that shows its work.
4. Exaggerate. When three national organizations repeat what one student outlet publishes, it may appear that there are many news organizations reporting a development. Careful reading of what is published, however, may show that there is still only one outlet stating that it has independent information. The other outlets added nothing, but merely repeated what they saw. The word “source” is so general as to never be useful. We learned that again on Saturday evening. To many readers, a source suggests someone with direct knowledge. One news outlet reporting what another outlet published does not equal two sources. Finally, the word “confirmed” does not mean “we read it twice.” Combine exaggerations of “multiple” “source” and “confirmed” and you end up with this too-typical statement: “Multiple sources are confirming that forrner Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died today at the age of 85.” (from @TimesHeraldPA)
5. Stop reporting. If you do everything right to this point, you will have told your readers that there is an unconfirmed report of an important development and that other outlets or people who normally have timely information are silent. Many newsrooms went far beyond this, and reported as fact what the student newsroom was saying. In all cases, this is not the time to slow down. It is the time to renew your reporting efforts, to redouble the work of looking for more information, and for telling your community what work you are doing. (Example: We are calling the family and the hospital. We are checking with reporters in State College.)
When You Know You Are Wrong
6. Stay Narrow. At the first indication you may be wrong, broaden your search for accurate information. The indication may be silence (Example: AP doesn’t have this). It may be a tweet from an authority: @sganim, the Patriot-News reporter who broke the child-sex scandal story, @MarkCViera, a sports writer, and @ScottPaterno, one of Joe Paterno’s son, each tweeted warnings within about 15 minutes of the publication of the inaccurate information. When you realize there is a strong chance you have published information that is wrong, go public with the question. Extend your reporting. Look for more and varied sources.
7. Refuse to Acknowledge the error. Here’s where the student site, Onward State, showed up the pros. The managing editor published a letter acknowledging the error, taking full responsibility. He also resigned. Many professional outlets did not even take the first step. A typical flow was 1. “Paterno dead,” 2. “Family disputes report,” 3. “Paterno in grave condition.” A better way would be a message after 2. — “We were wrong.” One example, from a newspaper’s Facebook page.
8. Keep Quiet about your decision making. It may be enough at first to quickly acknowledge an error and to work hard to publish accurate information. Your community will be left with questions, though. Add a few paragraphs, on your site, in an editor’s blog post, on Facebook, about what happened. Do you have an established process for spotting, confirming and publishing information? For correcting inaccurate information? For acknowledging error? Is there a published set of policies? Does each staff member in your newsroom follow established steps — or decide in the moment? Are you making any changes in policies or training?
9. Don’t Apologize. Here’s where we drive a wedge between the newsroom and the audience. CBSSports was on Twitter for three hours with no more information than that the family disputed the CBS report. Not until 12:30 AM, did the @CBSSports Twitter feed post an apology. It’s a simple phrase, but it conveys a depth of feeling. Many outlets had an inaccurate hedline. Very few said, “we are sorry.”
10. Fail to Follow Up. Not long ago, when I made a mistake and tweeted inaccurate information, I tracked down everyone who retweeted it and sent a tweet with correct information and an apology. The tools we have now allow us to do that. Were there 30 comments on an inaccurate Facebook post? Did you have 100 RT’s of an inaccurate tweet? Message each person. Yes, it takes time. Yes, when you individually contact each of those people, you build trust.

 

Rest in peace, Joe Paterno. The AP has reported that the family says Paterno died today. There will be many lessons from his life and career. These 10 lessons are drawn from my newsroom experience — decades that included my share of errors — and from watching across several hours as a false report of Paterno’s death spread and was debunked.

Suggestions? Do you have an example that shows how you turned this into a lesson in your newsroom? Leave a comment below, or email me carllavin@gmail.com

8 Comments

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8 responses to “10 Lessons for Newsrooms: On Accuracy and Apologies

  1. Pingback: The never-ending accuracy lesson | About reporting

  2. One of my favorite examples of repeating a story without attribution came a few years ago, when my magazine’s website published an utterly ridiculous April Fool’s Day story I wrote. It was repeated – as fact and without attribution – in the Boston Globe’s sports section (ironically on the same day the newsroom won a Pulitzer). I immediately contacted the columnist and told him it was an April Fool’s story. No contrition. He merely faulted me, saying he “thought you were a news source I could trust.” The student newspaper editor who resigned did the honorable thing … and could have a solid career ahead of him. We all make mistakes. Acknowledging those mistakes is what makes a real professional.

  3. Good advice for all newsrooms, Carl. I was pleased with the apology and explanation Emily Donohue provided our Digital First Media readers of the Saratogian: http://saratogiansports.blogspot.com/2012/01/we-misreported-joe-paternos-death-heres.html

  4. Pingback: Joe Paterno’s death and the reality of news as a process — Tech News and Analysis

  5. Pingback: Stories Posted Monday, January 23, 2012 : Media News At This Hour

  6. Pingback: Post-Paterno newsroom advice from a veteran editor | Bleacher Report – The Writers Blog

  7. congrats, carl on blog at worldpress. good blog. good platform for you.

  8. Pingback: Obiticide « Jenni Lukac's Translation & Editing Blog

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