Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, Newhouse School, Syracuse University. Editing for print and digital, new media journalism.

Checking facts? Try these 5 steps

By · Wednesday, May 27th, 2020 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING

Fact checking has everyone’s attention again. And for good reason. So this is a good time to share a trusted method that will draw your attention to how many facts can appear in a story. It is a step-by-step fact-checking exercise that reporters have routinely followed in the past. We think it’s something that shouldn’t go out of style.

If you’re a news consumer, not a journalist, scan this exercise anyway. It is a bit long, yes, but then so is the process for ensuring credible information, not misinformation, is published and shared.

Step One. Ask a fellow reporter to have a story fact-checked. Agree to have that person fact-check a story of yours. Use a story of substantial length that has four to six sources. Agree with your partner that neither of you will be defensive as questions arise.

Step Two. Go through the story and underline or highlight every fact. There are many of them. Names, addresses, ages, job titles, statistics, dates, reports, songs, books, buildings, organizations, locations, and on and on. Assume nothing is “known.” You must be dogged in your checking. Listen to song lyrics or movie lines; anything and everything that can be checked must be checked. Any information that comes from a source must be checked with that source. But when you do that, don’t read facts back to the source; have the source give them to you again. For example, have the source, not you, spell a name. If it is not clear to you where a fact in a story comes from, then you will have to ask the reporter to tell you, and then you can proceed from there.

A special note: As the fact checker, you must be clear with sources about what you are doing and why you are doing it. You and your partner in this exercise should agree at the outset that when questions arise with sources, the reporter will get in touch with them to discuss points in question.

Step Three. You must check assertions of fact. It’s not enough that a source reiterates what he or she told a reporter. Whatever a source asserts, you must check — any statement presented as “fact.” If a source says something happened or someone did something, then the fact checker looks for ways to independently confirm it. When you can, go to primary sources. If the source of a report or a study is someone who summarized it for the reporter, then attempt to check the actual report or the study.

Step Four. Check quotes and paraphrases. You should avoid reading the quotes directly to sources because that could lead some of them to wish they’d said something differently. They might want to negotiate revisions, which you can’t do. Instead, identify the facts and assertions within the quotes, and check those. You could say something like, “You are quoted as saying this happened and that happened. Is that right? You say this about this person. You identify this as your favorite moment, and that it happened on this date. You said this was a difficult business to deal with, and you said this was why.” Make detailed notes about any challenges. These will have to be checked against the reporter’s notes. A source could get a little upset on occasion, so be prepared to politely reiterate what you’re doing and that you can’t speak for the reporter. Your message should be: “This is a process to uncover problems or issues, so it’s working, which is good.”

Step Five. Prepare a report that documents what appear to be clear errors found, potential errors found, and useful new facts uncovered. Give the reporter your documentation for every fact checked. Save everything because it might help the reporter if further checking is required. Agree on an orderly and easy-to-read system because your fact-checking exercise is likely to generate quite a bit of material.

This five-step process is described as an exercise, and it is. But it also is used “for real” when facts might be questioned. There is no shame in being challenged. Fact-checking is just the right thing to do.

These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Take care with the smallest details

By · Wednesday, May 20th, 2020 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING

Image via teamsupport.com

What’s right and what’s not? It is a major question these days as we consume and scrutinize every bit of news coming at us from all levels of government and agencies, not to mention from colleagues, family, friends and strangers on social media.

While we are not disseminating information about the coronavirus pandemic, we can offer some simple reminders about all the things that can be wrong in a story.

Watch for — and prevent — these as a journalist. Be aware of them as a consumer.

Name errors

Number errors

Title errors

Photo errors

Superlative errors

A society cannot survive and thrive without accuracy and trust. We must be vigilant with the smallest of details so we can get the major ones right.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Curiosity led us to meet these cool cats

By · Wednesday, May 13th, 2020 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING

You don’t have to be a journalist to get an idea published. Curious viewers took action on social media recently, and the PBS NewsHour satisfied their curiosity with this lighthearted piece: The NewsHour’s Family of Furry Friends

Before you engage and enjoy, here’s a friendly reminder about curiosity:

The reward for curiosity? Stories that answer readers’ questions and satisfy their curiosity — as well as your own. With a few “furry friends” as a special bonus.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Want to do it yourself? Think again

By · Wednesday, May 6th, 2020 · Comments Off on Want to do it yourself? Think again

not teaching,
still THINKING

Amazed is our reaction to watching a professional crew take down a mature tree more than 40 feet tall in a neighboring yard. All in a mere half day’s work.

What did we take away from this?

Context: The tree was diseased, sad as it was to see it go.

Process: A step-by-step approach defined the job.

Role: Each worker performed a specific task.

Pace: Together, workers maintained a steady rhythm and stayed in motion.

We are reminded — some things are just better left to the professionals.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Bread recipe serves as important lesson

By · Wednesday, April 29th, 2020 · Comments Off on Bread recipe serves as important lesson

not teaching,
still THINKING

Like homemade bread? So does a former colleague — a highly respected, now retired journalist who posted a baguette recipe on social media recently. But he transposed two important ingredients. No problem. Being the professional that he is, he immediately posted a correction. 

Sunday, 3:01 p.m.: Recipe posted.

Monday, 1:13 a.m.: Correction posted.

It stated:

For the breadmakers who want to try their hand at the baguette recipe I posted Sunday, a small correction:

It should be 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of salt. Just noticed I had them reversed.

Sorry

He followed the classic model for correcting an error by including: 

Errors happen. Knowing how to correct them can make all the difference, and that’s as essential as the all-important difference between sugar and salt.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

In memory of journalist Richard Holden

By · Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020 · Comments Off on In memory of journalist Richard Holden

not teaching,
still THINKING

Richard Holden / Courtesy of legacy.com

With sadness, we learned of the passing of Richard Holden on April 15 in Morristown, New Jersey, at the age of 70. We knew Rich when he was executive director of the Dow Jones News Fund, only one role in an illustrious journalism career.

His obituary describes a life dedicated to journalism, diversity and much, much more. This line encapsulates what we remember most about him: “It was a love for the editing craft and mentoring students to each’s individual success that motivated him.”

The American Copy Editors Society (ACES) has published a tribute by Merrill Perlman. In it, Perlman shares that the Richard S. Holden Fellowship will be “formally launched soon, (and) will be dedicated to advancing early- and mid-career professionals in their work as editors and aspiring industry leaders, and to promoting diversity and inclusion in our ranks.”

Rich’s passing touches us: One of us interned with the Dow Jones News Fund, and the other — like Rich — is a lifelong Cardinals baseball fan. That is pretty special.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)