Teaching accuracy takes more than punishing mistakes

Craig SilvermanJournalists are conditioned to fear and avoid mistakes but that doesn’t prevent errors, writes Craig Silverman. He lays out six fundamentals of teaching accuracy.

During a recent talk at Ryerson University, I asked the students in attendance if the school had a policy of a lowering the grade on an assignment if it contained a factual error, such as a misspelled name. The students all nodded their heads.

Well, that’s a start.

When I was studying journalism at Concordia University, the policy was that a student would lose a letter grade if they misspelled a name in a class assignment. We were informed of this on the first day of classes. My reporting and writing teacher also told a story about a promising young student who lost a prized internship because her submission included a misspelling of the name of a well-known local columnist.

The message was clear: don’t make mistakes.

Accuracy came up in other classes during my four years at Concordia, as I’m sure it does in every journalism program. Ryerson, for example, offers a course that teaches magazine fact checking. Most copy editing classes will also help students learn to edit out mistakes. These are all helpful lessons and areas of instruction. But after discovering a remarkable program being run at the Tilburg School of Journalism in the Netherlands, I started thinking about what we aren’t teaching students  — or professionals, for that matter — when it comes to accuracy.

Here’s a description of the Tilburg program from my recent Columbia Journalism Review column:

Starting last fall, the school, part of Fontys University of Applied Sciences, has recruited fourth-year journalism students to participate in three-week long fact checking programs. Each morning, the students gather in a room to review the day’s news and identify stories that seem questionable. Then they go to work, hitting the phones and other sources to pull suspicious stories apart and see if they hold up to scrutiny. As of today, roughly 80 per cent of the stories checked have contained some form of factual mistake, according to instructor and Dutch journalist Theo Dersjant. Their findings are published on a blog. Now, the people behind this program are hoping other journalism programs around the world will use the model to teach students about the importance of accuracy, and help keep local media in check.

This is a wonderful twist on how journalism students are typically taught accuracy. The Tilburg method uses real-life examples, which in turn means the students face real consequences if they falsely accuse a media outlet of making a mistake. (Students are punished for any errors by being forced to handdeliver a pie and an apology to the offended party, which is great because it’s important there be consequences for errors.)

This program helps students develop first-rate bullshit detectors, and it also shows them how professional journalists go wrong. The latter is essential information when trying to avoid future errors. But here’s where I think schools and professional newsrooms fall short: they offer little or no actual instruction in how to prevent errors.

Journalists are conditioned to fear and avoid mistakes. This helps send the message that accuracy is important. From there, the best course of action is to help mitigate the fear by teaching practices and introducing tools that help prevent factual errors.

Fear of mistakes doesn’t lead to accuracy. In fact, one of the best ways to learn how to avoid errors is to make them in the first place. A study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition is just the latest piece of research that suggests, as lead author Nate Kornell, an assistant professor of psychology at Williams College told me, that “making errors is the best way to learn information that you want to learn.”

Perhaps this sounds a bit confusing: fear is good, but also bad; mistakes are bad, but also instructive. That’s exactly the point. Teaching accuracy is a multi-faceted process. It’s complicated, and in truth it never really ends. You can’t learn accuracy the way you learn to add and subtract. It’s a process and a combination of learned behaviours, not a matter of memorization or motor memory.

The good news is that people can be taught to prevent errors in their work (though self checking is far from foolproof). With that in mind, and as a starting point, here are what I consider to be the six fundamentals of teaching accuracy:

1. Communicate that factual errors are one of the byproducts of practicing journalism. But they are also damaging to the public and the profession – and a career killer for individual journalists. Working in this profession means caring about preventing and correcting errors.

2. Collect and share data about mistakes. This means learning about the more than 70 years of U.S. newspaper accuracy         research, examining the most common errors made by journalists, and capturing the mistakes made by students and/or professionals.

Use these concrete examples of error as teaching tools. Dissect how a student or reporter came to misspell a name, or botch a statistic. Don’t let journalists gloss over their mistakes – force them to examine the root causes of error. This information is the key to achieving prevention. As noted above, it’s also a powerful way to learn. Encourage classmates and colleagues to share their failures, and their tips for preventing errors.

4. Make sure there are appropriate consequences for errors. There needs to be a framework that provides for a reasonable level of punishment when errors occur. (Think of that dropped letter grade.) But punishment must always be accompanied by training. Never separate the two, and always err on the side of training.

5. Teach and preach the use of checklists, and instruct people in the fundamentals of magazine fact checking. Once internalized, these two processes will help journalists prevent errors on a daily basis. To be clear: I’m not suggesting that every media outlet can practice magazine fact checking; but learning about how it works can help individual reporters and editors be better at self-checking.

6. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Accuracy is learned behaviour. You can’t just hand someone a checklist and expect him to use it. Keep talking about accuracy, capturing and examining mistakes, and sharing ways to prevent errors.

What have I missed or overlooked? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Craig Silverman is an associate editor for PBS MediaShift, a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review, and the founder and editor of RegretTheError.com, a website that reports on media accuracy, errors and corrections. He is the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, which won the Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism from the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He serves as an advisor to MediaBugs, a Knight Foundation-funded project.