Avoiding errors, and what to do when they happen

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The quick pace of social media and the Web have escalated the importance of getting a story right the first time and avoiding errors as a journalist, said Forbes managing editor for business news Dan Bigman in a conference call with Forbes contributors from New York Tuesday.

“Just correcting an error doesn’t necessarily correct the problem,” Bigman said. “If you fix the mistake later, it is already out in the wild and running amuck, with the quick nature of social media.”

Bigman and Forbes editorial counsel Kai Falkenberg outlined some key practices of good journalism to prevent mistakes from being made the first time around. While many of them are obvious, the topic serves as a good reminder on how to maintain credibility as a reporter and uphold the integrity of news organizations.

“There’s a mindset that people have a much higher tolerance for getting things wrong online, but that’s a misnomer,” Bigman said. “You have a real impact, good or bad, and sometimes real people get real lawyers and sue. But it’s more than self preservation.”

Bad Sources

Citing bad sources are one of the most common ways that a journalist will make an error in a story. Linking to or citing someone else is not the same thing as actually getting the story correct, Falkenberg and Bigman said in the presentation.

“If someone else is wrong and you repeat them, you just double down on their error,” Bigman said.

Avoiding incorrect sources can be done by reading multiple sources before rendering judgment, reading an entire story before linking to it and making sure that the source is current and hasn’t been corrected itself.

Bigman told a story of a business journalist who managed to tank a stock by writing about an old news story about the possibility of United Airlines filing for bankruptcy as if it were a breaking news event.

Additionally, some sources may have an agenda, and it is important to see where an organization that issues reports receives its funding.

You Didn’t Get the Other Side of the Story 

Journalists always need to ensure that they are getting the full and accurate version of every story. With sources and PR people having agendas, if a story is underreported, a journalist runs the risk of getting used and publishing an inaccurate story — even if they reported all the facts they received correctly.

Excuses like “but the company told me so” doesn’t serve as a legitimate excuse because at the end of the day, sources only want one thing. Knowing the source and trusting them is important, but a reporter shouldn’t be friends with them, Bigman said.

If a reporter cannot figure out the agenda of someone they are talking to for a story, they should step away or ask directly. Furthermore, Bigman frowns upon letting a source see a story before it is published, including quotes from the source.

“Ask specific questions to clarify a topic as opposed to sending them a chunk of what you’ve written, Bigman said. “If they’ve said something great, controversial, meaty and then you show it to them and they want to retract it, then where does that leave you?”

Not Skeptical Enough 

Dictation is not journalism, Bigman said during the conference call.

“A good source is not someone who is quotable,” Bigman said. “A good source is someone with accurate information.”

Maintaing a certain level of skepticism when speaking to all sources and researching all information is crucial, and keeping this guard will prevent embarrassing mistakes.

Rushing to Publish

General sloppiness when rushing to publish a story before competitors leads to a majority of mistakes that happen on a daily basis among reporters. Most errors are typo or numbers-related, Falkenberg said.

Bigman suggested to “measure twice, cut once” before publishing a story, meaning that a reporter should double check all numbers, read a story backwards, use spell check and get a second set of eyes to read a story.

“You can tank a stock if you get data points wrong while writing quickly,” Bigman said. “Be careful when writing about earnings of a big company, as it’s usually billions not millions.”

Writing Outside Your Area of Expertise 

When a journalist is assigned to a certain beat, they become an expert in that topic, of the people who matter in the industry and of the companies they cover. When a journalist strays outside his or her area of expertise to report a story, errors may often occur this way.

“Don’t get in the mindset of, ‘Well, this topic was getting traffic so I had to say something,’” Bigman said. “Write about what you know and don’t try to be smarter than you are.”

You Made a Mistake, Now What? 

Every news organization has its own way of handling factual and typographical errors, but Bigman and Falkenberg outlined some practices that are fairly standard across professional agencies.

For smaller typos, whether spelling or data points, the correction should be made in the body of the story, with an acknowledgement of the correction at the top or bottom of the story.

“In the correction, you just want to move forward and say what’s right,” Bigman said. “Just say that something was misstated in the previous story, don’t repeat the error.”

Falkenberg highlighted the importance of due diligence before making a correction so that the reporter doesn’t have to issue a more than one correction by getting it wrong a second time.

For more major errors, its imperative to contact an editor immediately and discuss with someone in higher authority about how to treat the error.

“We (Forbes) very rarely take down posts, and the act of taking down posts generates a lot of coverage itself and often gets magnified,” Falkenberg said. “It’s very hard to undo an error once it’s there.”