Accuracy checklists aren’t just for staffers

check_list1Many years ago, I wrote a travel article that described the Lancaster County area in contrasts: city versus country, 18-wheelers roaring down I-30 with clip-clopping black buggies just feet away on the sides of the highway. Confident in my writing, I nonetheless asked Ray to give it a read before I sent the piece off to the editor.

And good thing I did. Ray nodded at most of the draft but brought up one major objection. “Honey,” he said, “I-30 is in Texas. Route 30 is in Pennsylvania.”

I remembered that incident—still used as a cautionary tale for students—when reading about Steve Buttry’s advocacy of an accuracy checklist. Buttry has some 45 years of experience in the news business. He urges using the same sort of CYA checklist in journalism—and by extension nonfiction writing and reporting—that airline and healthcare workers use to prevent critical errors.

Buttry heard the idea from Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech and a former managing editor at PBS, at a 2010 accuracy workshop. The checklist is ”one of the simplest and most effective error-reducing tools” and has “been proven to work for pilots, doctors, nurses, and even people at nuclear power stations,” Silverman wrote in Columbia Journalism Review.

Experienced journalists don’t use checklists because they think they make fewer mistakes than a rookie, he wrote, but “research doesn’t support this idea.” Too often we wing it, going with our assumptions, depending on “logic,” conflating correlation with causation. These mistakes are even more likely to sink a story given the loss of fact checkers and editors on staff.

So what should be on a writer/reporter’s checklist? Silverman’s CJR article includes links to a few examples (here’s his own starter), and Buttry has one, too. It’s pretty basic stuff, but a tired, overwhelmed, or distracted writer can easily miss things like this:

• Have you double-checked all names, titles, and places mentioned in your story?
• Have you tested from the screen and CQ’d all phone numbers and Web addresses?
• Are the quotes accurate and properly attributed? Have you fully captured what each person meant?
• Have you assumed anything? (If so, verify, hedge, or remove.)

You wouldn’t believe the stupid mistakes made presumably without such backstoppage. The Times of London once referred to Pope John Paul II as “the first non-Catholic pope for 450 years” (it meant “non-Italian”), and the New York Times corrected a column saying that Moses had parted the Dead Sea, not the Red Sea. Better editing—or a fail-safe checklist—would have prevented those mistakes.

An assistant editor at The Washingtonian, the young woman in charge of the fact checkers, used to have a sign over her desk. “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story,” it read. We’d all do well to remember: That was a joke. You’re not infallible. Check your copy.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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