Checklists and Logs – good habits reduce errors

by September 3, 2010

Craig Silverman's Regret the Business ErrorLike people who can’t help asking for health advice from any doctor they meet, journalists who recognize me as the Regret the Error guy usually have two questions on their mind. I view these queries as a reward for spending six years researching, tracking and reporting on press errors and accuracy. First, they want to know the worst media mistake ever (define your criteria, and I can give you an answer); second, they want to know how to prevent factual errors.

The latter is a question I love to get, but the answer is anything but straightforward. That’s why I’m excited to start this every-other-Friday column for the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, and why I don’t worry about running out of material.

That doesn’t mean I can do it on my own. I hope all of you will add comments that share tips and advice for achieving accuracy in business reporting. I hope to combine my knowledge of accuracy and error prevention with the specific expertise of business journalists. It’s going to be a team effort.

I’ll kick things off by sharing three core pieces of an error-prevention strategy. When someone asks me about preventing errors, these are the points I try to rattle off before their eyes glaze over.

Understand The History

Academic researchers have been studying U.S. newspaper accuracy since the 1930s. (Read this paper: Tip of the Iceberg: Published Corrections Represent Less than Two Percent of Factual Errors in Newspapers by leading accuracy researcher Scott Maier to get a sense of the data.) These studies have helped determine the most common mistakes made by newspaper reporters. The below list is a good starting point for determining where you and your colleagues will probably go wrong. These are the top 11 types of factual errors made by U.S. newspapers, in order of frequency:

  1. Misquotes
  2. Incorrect headline
  3. Numerical error
  4. Misspelling
  5. Incorrect job title
  6. Incorrect name
  7. Incorrect location
  8. Incorrect time
  9. Incorrect date
  10. Incorrect address
  11. Incorrect age

Self-Diagnose and Track

Now it’s time to get personal. Grab a pad of paper or open up a document on your computer. Title the pad or document “Error Log” and start listing all the reporting mistakes you’ve made. Chances are that many of them fall into the above categories, but maybe you’ll discover other types of errors that crop up in your work. An Error Log helps you identify your weaknesses and, as a result, predicts the mistakes you’ll make in the future. Mistakes are embarrassing and painful to recall, but they are also the path to accuracy. Create an Error Log, and update it every time you fail.

Create Good Habits

Accuracy is a learned behavior. You can’t take a pill or purchase a piece of software to make yourself more accurate. It takes effort, practice and a willingness to improve your work habits. The key is to map good habits to the errors you make. Now you see why an Error Log is essential. If your Log is filled with misspelled names, it’s time to change the way to you handle this information. One good habit is to start every interview by asking the person to spell his or her name, title and company. Do that every time, and you won’t guess or forget to check it down the line.

Another habit I recommend is adapted from productivity guru David Allen’s Two-Minute Rule: If it will take you two minutes or less to verify a fact, say by sending an e-mail to double-check information, do it right away. Delaying makes it more likely that you’ll forget, or that you’ll do a poor job come deadline. Do it now.

Finally, the single best habit is to use a checklist while reporting, writing and editing. I’ll go into more detail about a checklist for business journalism in a future column; for now, you can read about why checklists are so effective.

Now it’s your turn — please share your error-prevention habits and tips in the comments. And here’s a reason to join in: The person who provides the best tip or piece of advice between now and the end of December will win a copy of my book, Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.