On June 14, the Associated Press announced that the former first lady of Mexico plans to run for president of the country in 2018. But neither the reporter nor any of the outlet’s editors caught one glaring error: the first lady’s surname was spelled incorrectly.
In an article that was just 144 words, the AP managed to misspell the former first lady’s last name as “Zabala” (rather than “Zavala”) not once, but three times. Twenty-four hours after the piece was published, no correction had been issued.
When the often woeful ignorance about life and politics in cross-border countries exists in a society, it can extend, unfortunately, into newsrooms, as is the case in the U.S. despite its geographical proximity to Mexico. The room for error is spacious, and includes not only a lack of basic knowledge of typical surnames and likely variations, but also much more nuanced, complex concerns, including an understanding of Mexico’s history and its current political landscape.
While it’s not possible for journalists and editors to catch and correct all the errors that arise as the result of ignorance, what is possible is instituting some basic checks to improve accuracy and accountability. Here are three no- or low-cost strategies:
Go back to basics with fact-checking.
Names, dates, titles ... these should always be checked for accuracy, even when the journalist and editor believe these facts are presented correctly in the draft. But don’t rely solely upon the top hits served up by a Google search to confirm something like the correct spelling of a subject’s name.
A good rule of thumb is to confirm information via triangulation: using three reputable sources to substantiate the fact in question. In the case of the AP article, triangulated sources for Zavala’s name might have included her official Twitter account, her website and Mexican newspapers.
Increase and improve transparency regarding the “hands on deck” for each article.
Few publications do it, but more of them should: identify the hands through which an article passes before it hits print or screen. A greater sense of responsibility ensues when publications list not only a byline, but also the names of the editors (including photo editors and art directors) who work on a piece.
When work is excellent, the credit is shared. When it leaves something to be desired, everyone is held accountable.
To see what these “hands on deck” bylines look like, see the longform section of the popular food website Eater.com (not that the rest of the site does not have a similar policy), and select Bloomberg articles. The “Bylines” section of The Bloomberg Way: A Guide for Writers and Editors details how this information is formatted and what fields are included.
Hire fact-checkers with regional and linguistic expertise.
In the absence of a bureau or desk in Mexico, editors who themselves lack Mexico knowledge or expertise and who cover the country regularly should consider hiring a fact-checker who has regional and linguistic expertise.
This person could be put on retainer or hired for recurring one-off assignments. A fact-checker who has lived in the region is especially ideal, as he or she is likely to have a better grasp on local history, culture and politics than a journalist who is desk-reporting a story.
Image of the Mexico-U.S. border CC-licensed on Flickr via Ben Amstutz