From the editor: Fixing our mistakes

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Dear Friends of IowaWatch:

As those of you who have followed our adventure into the wilds of the non-profit journalism movement may know, last week was one we would like to forget. Our editing system – the one I created – failed.

Stephen Berry

We published some fact errors, including a serious misquote. Now, we want to do something about that, and I want your help.

The errors appeared in a major explanatory project of vital importance to the public, which means more is at stake here than IowaWatch’s wounded ego. I will not go into the grubby details again, but I invite you see them for yourselves. Our explanation of the major error is splattered across our front page on top of the current lead story – “Same-Sex Marriages in Iowa Colored by Tradition” – where it has been since Thursday afternoon immediately after I confirmed that the quote was erroneous.

The thrust of the story remains solidly intact, and our reporter did some excellent work on that very complex, emotion-laden subject. We worked hard on the research, the writing, editing and in the gathering of the multimedia elements. It took months. We devoted that time and energy, because we felt the debate over same-sex marriage gets to the heart and soul of what this country is all about.

This issue deserves solid reporting conducted as objectively as human frailties will allow. We did that with this story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter now, because the errors will make you – our readers – question its credibility, which in turn diminishes its service to the public good.

Working for the public good is our only reason for existence. For that reason, we owe you more than apology. We owe you an explanation of what we intend to do fix the problem. Our plan is still a work in progress, but I want to share our early draft with you and call for help in writing the final one.

I particularly would like to hear from those of you who belong or once belonged to that sadly under-appreciated specialty called ‘copy editor.’ [By, the way, I am going to steal this moment to send my belated thanks to all of those sainted souls on the copy desk who saved my butt so many times during the 33 years I worked as a reporter]. But I also need to hear from reporters, because all of us have made mistakes, and from those mistakes you probably can devise some excellent ideas on what it would take to prevent you from making them again. And finally, I want to hear from English teachers, editors and just careful readers.

To get your brains working, take a look at the draft of my plan.

Revising the IowaWatch Editing System

    1. Meet with any reporter who commits an error to deconstruct precisely how the error was committed and discuss how the reporter will prevent that kind of mistake from happening again.
    2. Require reporters to submit all notes, documents and interviews when they submit their draft. Notes that pertain to specific facts, quotations and statements that are in the story will be underlined or highlighted.
    3. Continue our in-house footnote requirement. This policy has been in effect since our first project, which was published on May 29. It requires the reporter to submit two versions – one version proposed for publication and one with the footnotes. Each note contains the source for the fact with all pertinent information needed to allow the editor to find it, dates of interviews with notebook page numbers where the quotation is located. The footnotes for human sources also must contain their contact information.
    4. Although we have always required reporters to conduct line-by-line fact checks before submitting a draft and again after the final editing, I have failed to adequately explain what I mean by that. Henceforth, it means using a printed copy of their story to circle every fact and quote in every line, and then going back to their notes, records and documents to identify the specific material from which the fact came. At that point, they will be expected to consciously re-evaluate their use of the material and decide whether they have any doubt about the accuracy of their notes or their understanding of the facts. Then the old saw – “when in doubt, check it out or leave it out” – will go into play. Line-by-line editing also must include all cut lines, charts, graphs, etc.
    5. Engage a volunteer assigned strictly as a fact-checker to match the footnotes with the reporter’s notes, contact quoted sources to confirm the accuracy of quotes, read original source material to verify the accuracy of paraphrased and summary statements, check the spelling of every name [including their own bylines] and agency mentioned in the story, and confirm the job titles and fields of expertise of every source.
    6. Submit the final edited version – the one that will be published – to the scrutiny of a final reader who has journalism or copyediting experience and who has never seen any of the earlier versions.
  • Now, have at it everybody. And send me some advice. Better still, call me. My number is 319-335-3331.

    Warmest regards,

    Stephen J. Berry,

    Interim Executive Director – Editor