One of the best accuracy checklists I’ve seen

Frank Fee’s 44 Tips for Greater Accuracy
How to avoid mechanical/objective errors in your newspaper

  1. Always do the math.
    • Don’t rely on another person’s figures.
    • Remember that “officials” and “experts” may be as bad at math as journalists.
    • Don’t be too busy or proud to consult a math text or math guide–and have one available.
  2. Always check a map when describing a site, route, etc.
    • Even when you think you know the area.
    • Especially when you don’t know the area.
    • If you have the opportunity, even drive out there.
    • Develop a checklist of trouble locations:
      • Seabreeze Park? Sea Breeze?
      • Athens? City, town, county or country?
  3. Always find the first reference to a person in copy.
    • Make sure you have first name and title.
    • Double-check to make sure first reference hasn’t been omitted, rearranged or deleted in trimming copy.
  4. Always immediately show any error you see to a supervisor.
    • Especially headline errors.
    • It may save you and your paper embarrassment.
    • Quick corrective action also may be important in defense against a lawsuit.
    • Don’t assume somebody else has already caught it.
  5. Never disregard a question that has been raised:
    • By another reader, in or out of the newsroom.
    • By that small, sometimes indistinct voice in the back of your head. Listen to your voices.
  6. Always take a fresh look any time a question is raised.
    • Even if the wording is correct, the question gives you a glimpse of at least one other reader’s reaction to your story. It’s a rare opportunity. Take it.
  7. Never assume anything!
  8. Always follow the Rule of Fair Comment.
    • A one-sided or one-source story is simply not a complete story and can never be an accurate one.
    • The other side may provide important information that makes the story accurate.
    • You can’t know it all, so talk to the people who do know more than you.
  9. Never rationalize or analyze to justify a result.
    • The reader won’t.
  10. Always make copy clear, unambiguous at a glance.
    • Any explanation or discussion of copy that includes the words…
      • “This must mean” or
      • “I think he means” or
      • I think she means” or
      • “I took it to mean”
        …is doomed.
    • Other danger phrases:
      • “What else could it be?”
      • Everybody knows that.”
  11. Always follow the Rule of CQ, which states:
    • Unusual spellings, tricky constructions, etc. need a “(CQ)” to indicate they’ve been double-checked.
    • Then…
      Never trust a CQ in copy!
  12. Always be sure to see each character in type–spaces, too.
    • Body type
    • Headlines
    • Graphics
  13. We have to see the forest and the trees, so Always:
    • Read (at least) once for content and effect.
    • Read (at least) once for the mechanical errors:
      • Grammar.
      • Punctuation.
      • Keyboarding.
  14. Always use all of the tools available to you:
    • Dictionary, stylebook, spell-checker, reference books, etc.
    • Don’t be too busy or too proud to check a fact.
  15. Never make it someone else’s job to make the story perfect..
    • Nobody should care more about your work than you do.
  16. Always be nice, but never assume that…
    • The last person on a story did his or her job right…
    • Or that the next one will. So do it right, now.
      • Remember the funnel effect. A large pool of stories sits atop a narrow editing path ending at the slot. The pressure of other stories as the copy goes through the funnel means your story is being read faster and faster, and there’s less chance to fix it as the set deadline looms.
  17. Always beware of superlatives.
    • “The biggest,” “the best,” “the smallest,” “the worst,” etc. …
    • …often ain’t.
    • Check it out.
  18. Always read the clips.
    • They can tip you off to sources, assumptions, information that has been reported as fact.
    • They can guide you to possible inconsistencies, contradictions, etc. with your information.
  19. But: Never trust anything in the clips.
    • How do you know the first story was correct?
    • Do you know for sure corrections caught up with the library clip or archive copy?
    • Has something changed since that story was written?
  20. Always double-check all facts in photo captions.
    • Names, addresses may be wrong but they could be more accurate than the story, too. At least you can double-check.
    • Be sensitive to what the photographer says is going on, and when it occurred, not just what appears to be happening in the photo.
  21. Always look at the photo when writing a cutline or editing one.
  22. Never trust a PR person’s word on spellings, other facts.
  23. Always remember that the wilder the error seems …
    • The closer you need to check before changing anything.

“George Delbecq, 26, of 854 Smith St. …”

  1. Never assume that of two spellings for the same name:
    • The first spelling is the correct one.
    • The most frequent spelling is the correct one.
    • Either spelling is the correct one.
  2. Always show the last person to handle the copy …
    • Any substantive changes you propose, including:
      • Names.
      • Titles.
      • Descriptions.
      • Story organization.
      • Characterizations.
      • Etc.
  3. Always get another pair of eyes to look at copy …
    • If you’ve set it.
    • Especially if you altered the copy before you set it.
  4. Always look for an opportunity to discuss the headline …
    • With the reporter or assigning editor.
    • With a colleague.
    • Especially if the story is:
      • Sensitive.
      • Complex.
  5. Always read your own newspaper — every day.
    • Check what’s happened to your stories.
    • Changes made? Ask why. You may learn something.
    • Critical reading can enhance your awareness of style.
    • It’s also a good way to prevent the same story from getting into the paper more than once.
  6. Always dial any phone number you intend to publish —
    after you’ve typed it into the story.
  7. Always analyze any correction you see — yours or another’s. Ask:
    • How did the error occur?
    • How could it have been avoided?
    • What would I do next time?
    • You may learn something.
    • The exercise will be a good refresher.
  8. Always give any sensitive, unusual or tricky material …
    • One last look.
  9. Always go back and read the full sentence if you’ve changed a word or two in copy …
    • Watch for subject-verb agreement, missing info, duplication, etc.
  10. Always follow the Rule of the Best Source, remembering:
    • The best source on one point isn’t necessarily the best for all purposes and certainly not for the opposing side.
    • Being the best source doesn’t mean not having a point of view, an ideology or an ax to grind. Just be sure you know what it is. Tell the reader, too.
  11. In doubt? Always call the reporter, wire service, or even the source.
    • We’re after the truth, not just a plausible narrative.
    • You’d be amazed how often sloppy wire copy goes unchallenged.
    • If AP transmits it, it’s AP’s error. If you publish it, it’s yours.
    • Interrupted sleep beats an interrupted career any day (or night).
  12. Always tap colleagues’ expertise if you don’t know the subject.
    • Beat expertise:
      • Anne covers politics.
      • Fred covers City Hall.
    • Background expertise:
      • Ardith knows kayaking.
      • Frank knows horses, backpacking.
      • Christine knows martial arts.
      • Mark knows wines.
      • Bob knows birds.
  13. Always make sure that the shorter word you use in a head …
    • Means exactly the same thing as the word that won’t fit.
  14. Always ask: “Is there anything else I should know?”
    • There’s nothing worse than having a source let you blunder into an error because …
      “Well, you didn’t ask.”
  15. Always be careful how you ask questions when checking a fact.
    • Leading questions may lead you into trouble.
    • Ask open questions that ensure complete, open answers.
  16. Never commit to print anything that you don’t understand.
    • If you don’t know, what are the chances readers will?
    • In pinning down your own understanding, you may:
      • Learn something.
      • Find a better way to say it.
      • Find a more accurate way to say it.
  17. Always match names, numbers in a headline with those in its story.
    • Also, cross-check facts in:
      • Cutlines.
      • Charts.
      • Infographics.
      • Agate Lists.
  18. Never correct an error until you’re sure you made one.
    • Retrace your steps.
    • Don’t take someone else’s word that copy is wrong; check it out.
    • This will help you discover why the error was made.
  19. Always remember: Errors can come in clusters …
    • Finding one may not find them all. There may be others.
  20. “Fee’s Theorem”:
    • “The most severe error in any one passage of a story will divert attention from the less severe errors in the same passage. The bigger the error, the more likely it will be the only one caught at that reading. Subsequent readings will tend to continue to eliminate only successive next-most-glaring errors.”
  21. “Fee’s Other, Similar Theorem”
    • “The more we chortle at one boneheaded error or hilarious screw-up in copy (always someone else’s goof), the more likely it is we’ll let another go through.”

In other words: Have fun, but don’t lose focus.

 

Fee is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication and previously taught at Ohio University after a long career in daily journalism.

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