“Getting It Right”

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From Robert  J. Haiman’s Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists:

“Veteran San Jose Mercury News reporters Pete Carey and Mike Antonucci have been reading stories or parts of stories back to sources for years ‘in the interest of getting it right.’  Says Carey: ‘If I’m quoting someone, I want them to pick up the paper in the morning and say, ‘Yeah, that is exactly how I feel about it’” (27). 

I found this to be a shocking idea.  I honestly never even considered sharing a draft or passage of an article with an expert.  However, I think it is an excellent idea.  As this reading stressed, many times in the journalism field, reporters are called upon to report on things they may not know a lot about.  They should do their best to research ahead of time on the internet and to take classes which will help prepare them, but what better way to ensure accuracy than to ask an expert to look it over.  Furthermore, not only will this safeguard the accuracy of the story, it will also make sure your source is satisfied that you expressed his or her opinion correctly.  This could go a long way towards increasing his or her trust of your newspaper and make them more willing to help you in the future.  I don’t think it would be realistic or time efficient to read him or her a whole article, but having the source look over a specific passage seems like a great way of “getting it right.” 

Read more on Haiman. 

6 Comments

It's common practice in journalism to read someone's quotes back to them and give the source a chance to clarify, but you're right -- you wouldn't read the whole article.

Angela Palumbo said:

This is a really good idea but I can't imagine how daunting it would be to share your ideas about someone's area of expertise in front of them. I'd be so afraid that person would think I was stupid. I confess that when in front of an expert I feel dumb. In Dr. Jerz's EL150, I was a little afraid to volunteer or even talk in front of him. I was always afraid of him judging me because I thought he was so smart. Greta, I know you can attest to the fact that I was scared of him.

I could also see the expert may suggest things that would be way too over the heads of the readers. Regardless, an expert's opinion could only help. You don't have to take their suggestions.

Josie Rush said:

Angela, I agree this could be daunting, but I think as a journalist, a person would probably be used to being in uncomfortable situations. Good point about not necessarily having to take their suggestions. If what the expert says will be "too over the heads of the readers" then you can either paraphrase (and, how lucky, the expert is right there to tell you if you're still getting the information right), or stick with the information you already had.
Greta, you're absolutely right that this would increase the newspaper's trustworthiness, and broaden the community of people willing to share quotes. My local newspaper has misquoted people so many times, and, well, let's just say if you want to lose the respect of your readers, misrepresent them. Even if a fact is incorrect, people may not notice (this is still bad, of course), but if someone is misquoted, not only will they know right away, but they'll tell other people.

Angela, I spend lots of time around people who know far more than I do about their own subject areas.

I was once watching Oprah interview a tween who referred to somebody as a "doy". It was very clear Oprah had never heard the term before, so she asked the kid to define it "for the people at home who don't know."

So, one strategy might be to say to the expert, "Since the general reader won't know what terms such as X or Y mean, what words would you use to explain this concept to a non-expert?" Then just keep asking questions.

Of course, you should still aim to demonstrate to your source that you've done your homework, that you are familiar with recent events, stakeholders, and key terms that you've already researched on your own, but you can always fall back on "the general reader".

Aja Hannah said:

I've read quotes that I've said and I have been like "Wow. I sound stupid or like a total jerk" because the way the quote was used. On one hand, it's important to be careful what you say around reporters, but also as a reporter to get the information right.

I want to write for a science magazine like National Geographic. Though I've studied a lot about paleontology, African wildlife, and environmentalism, I'm not nearly qualified to talk to an expert, write on their level about a matter, or decipher their jargon for the public. I still need to take more classes and even then without experience in the field I won't really know.

Greta Carroll said:

Angela, I definitely understand your concerns. However, I think as long as you present yourself in a professional manner and seem knowledgeable about the basics that the expert will not judge you. I think they’ll realize that whatever they are talking about is not your field of expertise, just as journalism may not be their’s. As Dr. Jerz pointed out, part of it is simply how you word your questions.

I think it’s more that people expect journalists to have a solid base of knowledge, than for them to know a bunch of specifics. For example, let’s say that you are reporting on a new advancement in cloning. The researcher you interview will most likely understand if you don’t know the exact process that they use to clone living things. However, if you don’t even know what an atom is, they might become frustrated since they have to go all the way to the beginning and explain very simple words. So as long as you do some research on the topic, the person is not going to judge you.

And yes, I think it would be hard to read quotes back to the person that said them, but as Aja and Josie both attested, there is nothing quicker that will turn people off than being misquoted. Furthermore, chances are the person you are interviewing will respect you a lot more because you read the quotes back to them. They’ll see that your first concern is “getting it right” and being respectful and they in return will be respectful back to you and view your paper more highly.

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