Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

10 Warning Signs a Story Should Not Run

By · Wednesday, November 7th, 2018

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Decisions to publish stories can result in long-lasting consequences, which we always hope are good ones. Sometimes a story is not ready to run, and an editor must hold it. How to decide?

Here are 10 warning signs that a story should not run. And, we would add a note to news consumers: When reading a story that already has been published, you can use these warning signs to make your own decision on whether the editor made the right call.

  1. One-sided story: There is more than one side to every story. But merely quoting all sides will not fix the problem of a one-sided story; the story also must include the necessary reporting and research that explains the issues and brings support to what people are saying.
  2. Only one source: Many factors motivate sources, and a one-source story is more apt to be slanted in favor of the source. Even a reliable source with good intentions can be wrong. Every story with only one source deserves close attention. Whenever a reporter has verified information with more than one person, the story is stronger and the information is more believable.
  3. A key source is anonymous: Policies about anonymous sources vary among news organizations. But any story whose key source is anonymous must undergo serious scrutiny that goes beyond a discussion between the reporter and editor. Others, such as the top editor, usually are consulted. Even when reporters and editors are careful about using a single anonymous source, things can go wrong.
  4. Thin or little substantiation: Information in stories must be supported, such as with details, quotes, numbers, comparisons. Without support, a story is weak.
  5. Missing or unclear attribution: News consumers need to know the source of information — the attribution — in a story. Sometimes attribution might be unclear, or a piece of a story might lack attribution. Without attribution, information sounds as if it comes from the reporter. That is misleading.
  6. Few or no direct quotes: A story without direct quotes will read in one voice — that of the reporter who wrote the story. The words chosen, the cadence, the pace will all belong to the reporter. Paraphrased information or partial quotes are not enough. A story with few or no direct quotes will lack life because it lacks a variety of voices.
  7. No new information: Sometimes a story is a compelling read because of the topic, but a close look will reveal that “developments” are not new, and the story really is only a rehash of news that already has been reported. Developments, not merely interest, should determine when a story is warranted.
  8. Conflicting information: A story with conflict actually is a good thing. Conflict is an element that defines a worthwhile news story, and sources will always disagree on things. But conflicting information is not the same as conflict. A story with conflicting details — numbers or reasons or causes or effects that contradict one another — will raise questions for news consumers.
  9. Editorializing: This is similar to a story without complete attribution; news consumers will conclude that the information in the story comes from the reporter and not from sources or that the reporter has a point of view about the story. Word choices and tone of the story must get close attention.
  10. Gut instinct: An editor needs a solid reason to hold a story, and gut instinct can be that reason. Pay attention to feelings of doubt. Potential long-term consequences of running a questionable story — not short-term inconvenience of holding it — should guide an editor’s decision.

These warning signs come from our “Think Like an Editor” book. If you want to read more, including examples, refer to Strategy 21: Holding a Story.

The intention of these warning signs is to stay alert, and every story will be different. But all of us — reporters, editors and news consumers — have a responsibility for what we publish and for what we share.

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

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