As a reporter, you must gather information and interview sources quickly, then explain what you’ve learned concisely and clearly. Once that’s done, it’s tempting to ship the story to your editor or hit “publish” on your blog.
Resist that temptation. You need to do one more thing to ensure your story contains only accurate, unbiased and verified information: edit your story line by line.
Investigative reporter Nils Hanson shared his advice for line-by-line editing at the recent Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) conference in Cairo. More than 200 journalists and academics, mainly from the Middle East, attended the conference, which included training sessions and networking opportunities with international investigative reporters and trainers.
Hanson, who reports for the popular Swedish TV news station SVT, and is a member of ARIJ’s board, offered these tips for editing for accuracy:
Have your address book and notes handy
Make sure your list of sources and their contact information, as well as notes from your interviews, are close at hand. There may be facts you will need to double-check as you edit.
Keep an open mind
“Are you hit by tunnel vision? That’s the big trap,” Hanson said. Tunnel vision is the tendency to hold on to a certain belief even when evidence points elsewhere. Reporters sometimes do this without realizing it, Hanson said, so stay open-minded when reporting and editing your story.
“Listen to the skeptical, examine the expert and question the victim,” Hanson said. Think of the recent BBC scandal, in which an alleged sex-abuse victim admitted to wrongly accusing a former politician of attacking him. “Can victims prove their allegations?”
Examine each fact
Ask yourself if there is essential information missing and if all assertions are grounded in fact. Mark each fact, name, figure and quote in your story, and then verify it. “Watch out for overstatements, such as ‘everybody says’ or [that] they haven’t done anything,” Hanson said.
Verify all data, including statistics. “Even data presented by interviewees must be verified,” he says.
Evaluate your sources and decide if you need more interviews
Do your sources make conclusions that others might criticize? Point that out.
Reporters need to make sure they talk with many people, including those they don’t like or who don’t like them. They should also include people who are controversial or who may seem a bit odd—or just wrong—to the reporter.
“Did the people criticized in your story have a chance to reply to all serious criticism aimed against them?” Hanson asked.
“Look at the overall picture and check if it is unbiased or if it is written in an accusatory tone,” he explained. “Who or what could give a different picture?”
Protect sources and check copyrights
Make certain that a source you have promised not to identify will not appear in published documents or in photos or video. Also examine graphics and copyrights, including logos and statistics revealed in charts or graphs.
Check your gut
After examining your report line by line, Hanson says to ask yourself two final questions. First, ask yourself, “Are you troubled by anything?” If the answer is affirmative, be honest with yourself and your editor about what that is.
Finally, ask yourself, “What might generate criticism?” Don’t automatically take those parts out. Instead, address those critiques in your story.
If you follow these steps, you’ll be much less likely to need to issue a correction—or to regret publishing the story at all.
Rana F. Sweis is a freelance journalist and media researcher. She writes mainly about political reform, refugees and social issues in the Middle East. She is also the lead researcher in Jordan for the Open Society Institute-sponsored Mapping Digital Media Study. You can visit her website and follow her on Twitter.
Photo courtesy of Rogue Sun Media, used with a CC-license