Only one-quarter of Americans say news outlets get the facts right, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. That’s a new low since 1985, when Pew first asked the question.
Two-thirds say stories are often inaccurate, a new high. This gap is a troublesome one for a democracy that relies on the free flow of accurate information for decision-making.
In my experience as an editor, I found journalists want to get the story right. They know that without credibility, a news organization offers very little of value to its audience or advertisers. And dealing with unhappy people about errors in stories is about the least fun aspect of any journalist’s day.
But sometimes, journalists aren’t quite sure how to check their work. The checklist is a proven way to reduce errors in other fields; it just hasn’t caught on yet in newsrooms, despite some notable efforts at the Detroit Free Press (PDF) and the San Jose Mercury News (scroll down the PDF).
Others, including Craig Silverman and Steve Buttry, have developed accuracy checklists for journalists, and I consulted them as I set out to combine the best of their and others’ ideas into a new accuracy checklist for journalists.
Silverman, author of the Poynter.org “Regret The Error” blog, has written for Columbia Journalism Review about the efficacy of checklists:
“Checklists have been proven to work for pilots, doctors, nurses, and even people
working at a nuclear power station. For example, the use of a World Health
Organization surgical-safety checklist helped reduce inpatient deaths (PDF) following
operations by 40 percent, according to a study published in the New England
Journal of Medicine.
“Checklists also work for journalists. We just don’t use them.”
The San Jose Mercury News found 10 percent fewer errors in a group of its journalists who used a checklist (PDF) for eight months in 1999-2000 compared to a similar group who did not, as part of the American Society of Newspaper (now News) Editors’ credibility project.
Please take the accuracy-checklist challenge, and see whether you get results. Try using my list for a month and see if it saves you from any errors. I’d love to hear about your experiences. Please comment below, or email me. Thanks for giving my checklist a test-drive!