Editors should be skeptics too

31 Jan

For years, there have been accuracy problems in journalism. Sometimes these mistakes are minor grammar or spelling errors. But other times, these errors are major fact errors resulting in inaccurate or false stories. Writers should always be skeptical of their stories and sources, but editors need to also check behind them. In some unfortunate instances, the reporters can’t be trusted. A fairly recent instance proves this point. Jayson Blair‘s editors were not skeptical enough of his stories. They may have trusted him to turn in honest stories with reliable sources. But in the end, Blair’s stories were revealed to be fabricated. If his editors had caught on to this and investigated his stories, the New York Times could have saved itself a lot of embarrassment.

Some people may ask themselves why false stories or fact errors occur in the papers. Sometimes time gets in the way. When a paper is on deadline, accuracy naturally becomes less important. Editors prioritize getting the story in the paper in time over spelling, grammar or fact errors. Other times, editors and reporters can both be blinded by an interesting story. If a story is really good, editors can forget to be skeptical because they are caught up in the excitement of possibilities instead.

All of these are reasons mistakes appear in stories but I think the most common reason news organizations get stories wrong is the urgency to get the story first. In some cases this results in small errors, but in others it results in reporting things that simply aren’t true. Both Joe Paterno and Lee Roy Selmon were reported dead by some news organizations long before they actually passed away. Mistakes like these are offensive to both the subjects and their families. They also result in the loss of the organization’s readers and its reputation. False reports can also cause both the editor and the reporter their jobs.

On the other hand, these mistakes can be avoided. With certain training, the chances of making fact errors are greatly reduced. There are many tips and tricks editors can use to catch mistakes and find holes in stories. It’s easy to add up the math, check names or confirm dates. But other holes and inconstancies are harder to spot. So editors should receive special training to help them be more skeptical editors. All journalists should receive a basic education in all general topics so they can spot when someone is feeding them a line. Critical thinking is also a skill that should be drilled into editors’s heads. If an editor can think critically about every story, he or she should never be fooled by a good story.

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