“If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”
This piece of wisdom has been handed down to reporters for decades. I don’t know who said it first but it’s true.
I often hear people complain about journalists “getting things wrong”. They’re right, we do. It’s an unfortunate hazard of the industry, especially in newsrooms where profits are worshipped instead of facts. In these newsrooms, journalists are put under pressure to churn out copy, no matter whether it’s true or not. I’ve promised myself I’ll never work for a newsroom like that. And I do my best every day to get things right.
But I want to share a story about how I *nearly* got it wrong today. I’m doing this so that I can show that a) I’m human and b) Because I screw up sometimes too and it’s only fair that you know that. Also, by publicly admitting it, I’m embarrassing myself into never making the same mistake again. The more painful the lesson is, the less likely you are to forget it.
I was trying to track a potential source down. Her Linkedin profile told me that she was a Vice-President at a multi-national company. I decided to ring and see if I could talk to her. Now, I have to admit: I believed the Linkedin profile. I assumed she was still working there and I probably would have published that as a fact. Yet when I rang the office, the young lady at the other end of the phone had never heard of her. After consulting with colleagues who had been there longer, she told me that the employee in question had left some time ago. She just hadn’t updated her Linkedin to reflect this.
Now, let’s say Linkedin is a “source”. (Sources can be human or digital, like social network profiles). The mistake I made was to believe what the source said. In my experience, sources don’t lie; they tell you what they know. The problem is, what they know may be incorrect. They could have interpreted information the wrong way, misunderstood some numbers. My job as a reporter is to verify everything they say. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget though and to just *assume* the information is correct, especially with details that seem insignificant (the mistake I made today). Never assume. Every piece of information must be verified by two or three sources. Even then, it might be wrong; it happens. But the chances of it being wrong will be significantly lower if two or three sources can confirm it (or if a paper trail backs it up, which is highly preferable). When you’re publishing every day, it can be harder to hold yourself to this standard. But if you care about the work, you’ll do it. Sometimes, in the rush to build an audience, journalists send copy out before it’s ready. Or rather, they state barely-proven facts as opinions.
I got lucky this time; I’ll do my best not to make that mistake again. I’m sorry for nearly screwing up in the first place.
Here’s a funny story about why we must check everything twice.