Guest post: The importance of being accurate

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Jennifer Kessinger is a junior journalism major. She serves as the copy desk editor of The Daily Tar Heel and is also a reporter and sports anchor for Carolina Connection, a student-produced radio newscast.

A newspaper is a trusted source of information to its dedicated readership. Readers expect, and deserve, timely information about the news that matters to them. They want their news to be accurate, too. And it is — most of the time.

As someone who’s worked at The Daily Tar Heel copy desk for two years, I’ve stopped many fact errors from making their way into the printed paper. From incorrect dates for events to misspelled names, I’ve caught countless errors. But somehow inaccuracies end up in the paper. A recent front-page article headlined “Colleges closer to policy change” featured a source who was misquoted, and a correction ran on the front page the next day.

So why do we care about errors? For most errors, all we have to do as a publication is run a correction. As long as we didn’t libel someone and have to pay damages, there’s no harm done, right?

Wrong. Even with no tangible consequences, the DTH and other publications feel the sting of inaccuracies. At a recent Carolina Connection meeting, one of my colleagues suggested covering a story for the radio that had already been covered by the DTH. I then cringed in my seat when I heard someone else respond with, “Well, you can’t trust everything you read in the DTH. Have you seen how many corrections they’ve had?”

As a news source, we’re not just in the business of publishing a daily paper. We’re in the business of goodwill with our readership, and that goodwill comes in the form of credibility. Without credibility, the DTH or any other newspaper would be reduced to piles of paper and ink.

Errors can originate anywhere in the newsgathering, writing and editing process. Sources can be difficult to understand, a reporter might misread his or her notes and even the most diligent copy editor can inadvertently introduce an error into a story. So I urge all journalists, from reporters to copy and assignment editors, to be constantly looking to prevent errors.

Before I was hired as copy desk editor, I wasn’t tested on my knowledge of AP style or given a spelling and grammar quiz. I was asked how I would help combat the issue of fact errors being printed in the paper, which shows the importance of fact-checking and reading with a critical eye.

Copy editors, don’t assume any fact is common knowledge, and don’t be afraid to call a reporter to ask for clarification. Also, don’t be afraid to ask yourself a few questions: Do these facts make sense? Could they have happened in conjunction with one another? Have I checked all the names and facts in this story? Copy editors are the last line of defense in catching errors, so make sure you’re armed with the knowledge and techniques to prevent them.