A big part of my job is coaching, both seasoned and new, journalists. Lately I have been getting DM’s and email from managers asking, “How do you get through? I have no luck, especially getting them to understand the importance of a fact error.”
Here are some techniques I used while working in newsrooms. First, techniques for producers and writers. I would print out scripts that I knew had errors. Then I would sit down with the writer and tell them to do a couple of things. First, take these scripts and circle the 5 w’s. Then I would ask them to highlight the facts in the script, and the matching facts from the source they used. This can be a real eye opener, because it forces whoever wrote the script not only to see the error, but to see that answering the 5 w’s, will help avoid errors. Often if there is a fact error, 1 or more of the 5 w’s either is not in the script at all OR the w’s do not lead to any kind of logical conclusion. So, the light bulb goes off. There’s a problem. Then when the writer looks at the facts from the source, the error often shows up plain as day.
I did this for several reasons. It forces the writer to take ownership of the mistake. It also helps the writer think through how the error happened. After going over several scripts, you can see a pattern where the writer consistently goes wrong. In some cases, the person is unclear about a legal term. In others, the person is not clear about the background of an ongoing story. Both of those things are easy to train and correct, as long as the person recognizes the problem with making the error.
What gets interesting is when the person sees the errors, and is not concerned about it. I would get, “Well the anchor should have caught that.” Or “you copy edited the script, right? Isn’t that your job, to know the facts.” Those producers, writers, reporters etc. then step into phase two of training. The reality check!
Here’s the biggest differentiator between a newbie journalists and a veteran. Veterans understand that these stories we put on the TV screen actually impact lives. We know this for many reasons, not the least being that somewhere along the way, we made a mistake that hurt someone. In my case, my news director made me a call a family and apologize when I aired the name of a minor who was charged with a crime. My old station used the names of juvies. The new station did not. I did not check the policy at the new station. I will never forget how horrified I was when I had to call that family and explain to the parents, that I did not ask my manager if it was OK to air a minor’s name. That reality check changed the way I wrote news. Period. Veteran journalists have stories like this, about omissions or assumptions that really hurt. The wounds are still there, years later. We never look at the box our work plays in the same way again. It doesn’t beam into space for us.
If you can set up a scenario so the writer that made the error has to face up to the mistake, beyond saying sorry to the ND, do it. That reality check may change that newbie’s outlook on news forever.
Now on to reporters. The technique can be similar. I used to have them circle the w’s and highlight the facts. Since I did not always have access to their sources, I would sometimes ask for a name, then have the reporter call and re-verify the facts on the phone in front of me. If the reporter made an assumption, you could see the sweat on the brow. It is a great technique to quickly assess how sure a reporter is about a fact. The ones that double checked, always did it, with no complaints and no concerns.
The other technique I used is printing scripts about a story from each day part. I would include the script with the error. Then I would hand all of the scripts over and ask the writer to show me which script was wrong and explain why. It gets really interesting if you throw in a few wrong scripts from another day part and a writer’s correct script as well. Then you see how comfortable the writer is with their fact checking. If the writer figures all of his/her scripts have errors, you know that person is not comfortable fact checking. That is trainable.
If the writer thinks their scripts are never wrong, you may find the person is more interested in how something sounds, than accuracy. Go to the “reality check” step if at all possible.
The writer who catches the errors, both from themselves and others probably is just a little overwhelmed by volume. Start watching that person’s time management skills. This training technique works for reporters, producers and AP’s.
Hope this helps you make it stick, when it comes to training the importance of accuracy. If you have more training techniques I would love to hear them. Email me or post them on our FB page.