Publishers' Auxiliary/July 2008
When is the last time readers complained about the accuracy of a story? Or called to say they’re pleased with a story but irritated by a headline? Or found fault with how their ideas and statements were conveyed in a story?
News staffs translate hundreds of facts daily – some information is received firsthand and other secondhand. Some facts are included in comprehensive reports on important community subjects. Others are part of the daily churn of police reports, obituaries, weddings and engagements, and government meetings.
Through all of these stories, one tenet governs the work of newsrooms: accuracy. If the facts are wrong, the newspaper loses its credibility.
In the pursuit of fairness and accuracy, newspapers should consider implementing a “fact check” sheet. Individuals who either are sources or subjects of news stories are the best judge of how editors and reporters are doing their jobs. So why not ask them directly.
The process can be straightforward. Select a couple of stories from each edition and send a copy to an individual who either was contacted or who might have been identified in each story. Then ask a series of questions. For example:
Are the facts in the story/photo accurate, including spelling of names and addresses?
Were the quotes attributed to you used in proper context?
In general, do you consider this newspaper to be accurate?
Other questions regarding news content can be asked as well. What are the most interesting sections of this newspaper? Do other topics or issues warrant attention? Are any “voices” or constituencies lacking in coverage?
The “fact check” is an excellent tool to ask additional questions about your newspaper beyond strictly the news product. For example: What’s your primary source of news? What other publications/media outlets do you routinely depend on for information? How long have you subscribed to this newspaper? If you do not subscribe to this newspaper, why not? Can we improve upon customer service – in any department?
Newspapers should regularly check in with their customers to see how they are doing their jobs. And there are other avenues to do so:
“Ask the editors” night – Open the telephone lines for an evening to let readers ask anything on their minds. Top-level managers from the various departments should be on hand with the goal of answering as many questions on the spot as possible. If you don’t have the answer, take down the customer’s name and telephone number and respond within 24 hours. This is an excellent promotion during National Newspaper Week, but it obviously can be done any time.
“Brown bag’ lunches – Convene a series of conversations with readers. Buy your customers lunch in exchange for their feedback. If you’re soliciting comments on overall content, be sure your participants are representative of your community’s demographics. Or maybe tailor the session and its participants to a specific content area – for example, agriculture, business or youth coverage.
Reader boards – Organize a board comprised of readers with rotating membership. The individuals meet with the editor on a monthly basis and offer everything from editorial ideas to a critique of newspaper content.
The “fact check” is most useful as a regular connection with readers. Be sure to vary your selection of stories from routine news briefs and meeting reports to in-depth series and feature stories. If applicable, it might be worthwhile to send the same story to two different individuals to see if they offer similar perspectives on the report. Share the feedback with the individual writers whose stories were selected as well as with the entire news staff and other departments.
The concerns or ideas identified on the questionnaires will offer insight into what readers believe your newspaper is doing right and will challenge editors to improve areas where their staffs are not meeting expectations. The goal is to solicit feedback from a range of readers – new and longtime residents, young and old, men and women – and from a geographic representation of your markets.
Newspapers should be sincere in asking readers to be honest and straightforward in their answers, underscoring that the feedback will direct your staffs to strive a stronger product. At minimum, these ‘fact checks” earn newspapers high marks for showing concern about accuracy, fairness and breadth of coverage. The comments often can prompt a follow-up phone call and a fruitful conversation beneficial to both the reader and editor.
Editors also should seize the opportunity to explain to readers in a column what you’ve heard and what steps will be taken to address the concerns. And for those expectations that might fall short of what can be practically accomplished, explain that to readers, too. In the end, you may not get everyone to agree, but your goal is to help them understand your decisions and operations.