If I say the name, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, you know exactly whom I’m talking about. You’re likely picturing the widely circulated photo of him in his uniform, mustache front and center. But who’s this guy:
Don’t feel bad if you can’t place the face. His name is Jeffrey Skiles, and he was the first officer of US Airways Flight 1549, which ended up ditching in the Hudson River in January 2009 with no loss of life.
Everyone focuses on what Captain Sully was doing during the flight. Fair enough. But Skiles was performing a task that was just as important. When the plane lost power in both engines and Sully took over flying the plane, Skiles began going through an engine-restart checklist. And when Sully made the call to land on the river, he began guiding them through a ditching checklist.
Checklists helped save lives that day. They do it every day inside airplane cockpits, operating rooms and nuclear power stations. They can also help you avoid errors in your reporting and editing.
As noted in my first column, I have a free accuracy checklist available for download on my website. If you use this checklist every time you work on a story, you’d see a demonstrative reduction in factual errors. Don’t believe me?
When the World Health Organization introduced a surgical checklist and tested its use all over the world, it resulted in a 40 percent reduction in outpatient deaths. A test of checklists by the San Jose Mercury News saw a reduction in errors of 10 percent. You can read more about the history and efficacy of checklists in this Columbia Journalism Review column by me, or check out The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, a book by New Yorker staff writer and surgeon Atul Gawande.
My accuracy checklist is useful and effective for any journalist, but the reality is that business journalists can benefit from creating their own customized checklists. Depending on your beat, you will have very specific things you need to look at in each piece of reporting. So here’s a five-step process for creating and using your own customized checklist.
1. Download my checklist. This is your starting point. Look at the items listed on my checklist and ask yourself what’s missing. Is there something you do to help avoid error that isn’t on there? What’s a checking or accuracy-related piece of information that you need to verify for most stories? You also need to make sure any of your weaknesses are reflected on the checklist, which is best done if you…
2. Keep an error log. My first column for BusinessJournalism.org explained how to do this. Once you’ve been logging your errors for a few weeks or months, you can see the kind of mistakes you’re making and add them to the checklist. An error log also becomes a way to evaluate if your checklist is working. Do those old mistakes still occur? Are you getting better? Your log provides the data to check up on your checklist.
3. Build your personal checklist. No need to hire a graphic designer. There are lots of checklist templates for Word, and you can also go to http://printablechecklist.org/, http://tadalist.com/ or http://checkvist.com/ to build a free one easily. Take the items collected in steps one and two and customize your checklist. Keep items from my checklist that work for you and add your custom fields.
4. Print and laminate. It’ll never work if you have to print off a new checklist every time you start a new story. Here’s how to avoid that: print a few copies of your new checklist onto good quality photo paper, get them laminated and then buy a dry-erase marker. Voila — now you have checklists you can use again and again. Just wipe them clean after each story is finished. Having more than one on hand also means you can manage several stories at once.
5. Make it a habit. The only way to get the full value of a checklist is to use it every time. You have to commit, or you won’t get the results. This is hugely important. Using a checklist every time also means that the data in your error log is closely related to the holes in your checklist. So you can constantly go back to steps two and three to keep your checklist fresh. Make it a habit, track your progress, and update your checklist. Do those three things, and you’ll be a better journalist.