If your mother says she loves you, go check it out (or why making sure you’re sure matters).

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The adage in journalism regarding verification is: “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.” The idea is that you need to make sure things are right before you publish them. You also want to verify the source of the information before you get yourself into trouble.

This issue popped up again this week after former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci had exchanged several emails with a person he thought to be former Chief of Staff Reince Prebus. It turns out, the messages came from a prankster, who baited Scaramucci into an “email battle:”

“At no stage have you acted in a way that’s even remotely classy, yet you believe that’s the standard by which everyone should behave towards you?” read the email to Scaramucci from a “mail.com” account.

Scaramucci, apparently unaware the email was a hoax, responded with indignation.

“You know what you did. We all do. Even today. But rest assured we were prepared. A Man would apologize,” Scaramucci wrote.

The prankster, now aware that he had deceived the beleaguered Scaramucci, went in for the kill.

“I can’t believe you are questioning my ethics! The so called ‘Mooch’, who can’t even manage his first week in the White House without leaving upset in his wake,” the fake Priebus wrote. “I have nothing to apologize for.”

Scaramucci shot back with a veiled threat to destroy Priebus Shakespearean-style.

“Read Shakespeare. Particularly Othello. You are right there. My family is fine by the way and will thrive. I know what you did. No more replies from me,” the actual Scaramucci.

“Othello” is a tragedy in which the main character is tricked into killing his wife Desdemona after his confidante convinces him that she has been unfaithful.

As the article points out, Scaramucci isn’t the first person to be suckered by a prank. Other members of the government had been similarly duped via email. In terms of prank calls, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker found himself once speaking with a person pretending to be billionaire David Koch, discussing ways to attack protesters and destroy liberals.   (The prankster told his side of the story on Politico.)

News journalists have also been caught short when it comes to making sure they’re sure about the sources and information they receive. In 2013, KTVU-TV in San Francisco had what it thought was a big scoop on the Asiana Flight 214 crash: The names of the captain and crew. However, the information turned out to be not only a hoax, but an intentionally racist set of names:

Three people were fired and a fourth resigned for health reasons in the wake of this error. In digging into this, it turned out that the NTSB found the source of the names to be a “summer intern” who thought this would be funny. In its own investigation, the station found that nobody asked the source at the NTSB for his name or title. The station issued an apology, as did the NTSB.

It’s easy to laugh at these incidents or to marvel at how dumb somebody was to buy into this stuff. However, we used to say around my house, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” In other words, you could be next.

So here are three simple tips to help you avoid these problems:

  1. Verify, verify, verify: If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Look up information on various sites, ask a source for other people who can augment/confirm the information and make sure you feel confident in your content before you publish.
  2. If you aren’t sure, back away: It is always better to be late on something than it is to be wrong. It’s also better to let a random email or a text go without a response than to get sucked in and pay the price later. Some of these are easy, like when a Nigerian Prince promises you untold riches if you would just transfer your bank account number to him. Some are harder: When’s the last time you made sure it was your friend texting you about a “crazy night” and not his mom or dad doing some snooping? We just assume we know the actual source. That can be dangerous, so back off if you’re not sure.
  3. Kick it around the room: One of the best reasons why newsrooms, PR offices and ad agencies exist is to gather collective knowledge in one place. Sure, with technology now, it’s easy for everyone to work “off site” but keeping people in a single physical spot can make it easier to have someone look over your shoulder and see if something you just got “smells right.” Take advantage of other people around you and don’t go at it alone.

John Heard and Obituary Math

At one of my first newspaper jobs, a veteran reporter told me that there were only two reasons we EVER would stop the presses: If we printed the wrong lottery numbers or if we got someone’s obituary wrong. You libeled the pope? We’ll figure that out later, but if you screwed up an obit, stuff would come to a screeching halt in the press room.

I never found out if that was meant to scare me, as I was a new reporter who would mostly be doing the lottery numbers and obituaries or if it was a true story. However, the idea that obituaries mattered stuck with me. It continued with me at my first editing gig in Columbia, Missouri. My boss had a rule that EVERYONE who died in our area would get a full staff-written obituary, free of charge.

George Kennedy saw the Missourian as the paper of record and recording the life stories of people in our circulation area was sacred to him. We always would tell the reporters, “Do the math” when it came to the age of the deceased. We firmly stated, “Check again” on any outlandish claims regarding war medals or honorary degrees we couldn’t verify. “Are you sure?” was our mantra when it came to these stories.

While I was at a wedding last night, I found out actor John Heard, who was best known for his role in the “Home Alone” movies, died in Palo Alto, California. I did a quick search through my news feed and found that most of my main sources had done obituaries and most listed him at age 71:

However, one source listed him at 72. It was an outlier among a sea of “venerable” publications, and it had me thinking about how easy it is to screw up an age in an obit. A check of years instead of birthdays, an unfortunate accident near or on a date of birth or just a general “whoops” will do it. However, I dug more and found additional notices that supported the “Heard is 72” age issue:

A quick check of his IMDB page gave me this:

IMDBHeard.jpg

The math was easy (March birthday) and his birthday is listed, so where were the BBC and NY Times getting the idea that this guy wasn’t 72? I couldn’t find a birth record, a formal form from the coroner’s office or anything else. CNN finally put something together that was helpful in one of its stories:

(CNN)Actor John Heard, best known for playing the father in the “Home Alone” movies, has died, the Santa Clara County, California, medical examiner’s office said.
The medical examiner’s office said the actor was 71, but other reports list his age as 72. He died Friday.

It’s unclear where the coroner got the information from. Let’s just hope it wasn’t the most popular source out there prior to Heard’s death that listed his date of birth in a way that would have put him at 71:

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I can’t say for sure that the medical examiner (or even the NY Times) went to Wikipedia like somebody’s stoner roommate trying to pull together a last-minute Sociology paper. The Times, BBC and other people didn’t cite their sources. At least CNN, while not giving us a definitive answer, gave us clarity with an attribution. What I can say is that it’s impossible for him to be both 71 and 72 at the same time.

With all of that in mind, here are three key take aways from this:

  1. If your mother says she loves you, go check it out. Make sure you have a solid source to demonstrate from whence your information came. Also attribute that information so people can go back and check for themselves. It shows faith in your readers and bolsters your credibility. If a reader looked at you and said, “Where did you get THAT from?” would you feel confident telling that person the answer?
  2. Trust, but verify. Just because the New York Times ran a story that said one thing and the Portage Daily Shopper contradicted it, don’t just assume the Times is right and the Shopper is wrong. Sources do count for something, but even a blind squirrel can find an acorn and even Goliath can get knocked on his ass.
  3. Treat obituaries with reverence. I used to tell my students that an obituary might be the first and last time someone was mentioned in the media. With that in mind, you need to bring your “A” game when you do the reporting and writing.

 

Filak-ism: It should hurt so much that you never do it again, but not so badly it kills you. (Or how my grading policy works thanks to the Crawfish River)

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Filak-ism: A random observation, borrowed idea from a movie/song/TV show/book, odd concept or weird phrase that has been warped in the mind of Dr. Vince Filak for broader application within journalism situations.

It’s hard to get over a mistake you made when you literally have to drive over it several times a year.

As a cub reporter, I caught a great story about a 10-year-old kid who jumped into a river to save his little brother’s life. I managed to get the police report, the hospital info on the little brother and interviews with the family, all while on deadline. When TV didn’t have the story that night (in the era before people broke news online), I had an honest-to-God exclusive. I couldn’t wait for that story to run.

When it did, I wished it never had.

Turns out, I called the Crawfish River the “Crawford River,” which makes no sense as we don’t have one of those around here. I also managed to mix up Fall River, Wisconsin with River Falls, Wisconsin. Two errors in the lead. Good grief.

It turns out that to drive from Madison, where I was living at the time, to my folks’ house in Milwaukee, I actually had to cross the Crawfish River. Even now, years later, I’ll be driving in some part of the state and end up on a bridge over that damned thing. It never goes away.

What also doesn’t go away, however, was that constant reminder to ALWAYS double check proper nouns, including people, places and events. Spelling, geography, whatever. Just make sure you’re sure, I would tell myself after my fifth overly paranoid examination of whatever I was writing.

When I became a professor, I wove that philosophy of pain and remembrance into my grading as well. Fact errors cost people half their reporting grade. Some students thought it was too harsh. Colleagues occasionally told me it was too lenient, in that they gave out zeros when someone made an error like the “Crawford River.” I explained it to both groups with a simple philosophy:

I want mistakes like these to hurt so badly that you never make them again, but not so bad that they kill you so you can’t ever recover and thus miss the point. In short, if the penalty is too harsh, it fails to do its job. If the penalty is too soft, it fails to do its job.

I won’t disagree with other systems, but it appeared to me over time that mine worked out pretty well. Last year, I was in contact with a former student who had just gotten her master’s degree in library science. She just got engaged so congratulations on both fronts were in order. After a brief exchange, she said this:

“Poy Sippi is spelled P-O-Y S-I-P-P-I, not P-O-Y S-I-P-P-Y.”

I paused, wondering if she was OK.

“That’s the reason I got an A- in your features class. I misspelled that damned thing. Now I always look stuff like that up.”

Score one more for the Crawfish River…

Everyone needs an editor (sometimes two or three)

The best money I ever spent in life was the $50 I handed over to a 20-year-old college kid who was working a copy desk. I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of a year writing and rewriting and rewriting (and then rewriting some more) on my dissertation. For those of you who have never heard of a dissertation, it’s the giant book that Ph.D. candidates have to write that nobody ever reads that shows you are worthy of being called “doctor” by somebody at some point in time.

I was at the final phase when all the people had signed off on everything that needed a signature and all that was needed was a final edit for grammar, style, spelling and consistency. After that, it was time to print it on “the good paper” and then off to life as a “Doctor of Paper” (to quote one of my former student’s parents).

The problem? I’d gone blind to the text.

I had read it so often, I was filling in words that weren’t there. I wasn’t able to see inconsistencies in style or formatting. I had no idea if I had spelled anything right, spellcheck be damned. So, I found the most trustworthy member of a student-staffed copy desk at my newspaper and cut a deal: I handed her my APA (not to be confused with AP) styleguide along with my dissertation and forked over the cash. In return, she made me look less inept.

When she finished, I ponied up an extra $10 or $20 or whatever I had on me at the time. It was worth it. It also codified a truism that all writers should understand: Everybody needs an editor.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute hit on this today with his look at the love/hate relationship news writers have with the copy desk. Writers craft prose, copy deskers crush souls. Writers live for imagery, copy deskers imagine the lawsuit that’s coming unless the story gets shored up a bit better. And so it goes, the tug-of-war between writers and editors.

Like everything else on this site, however, editing isn’t just a newspaper issue. EVERYONE in media writing needs an editor. If you don’t believe me, look what happens when an advertising firm thinks, “Yeah, that looks right…”
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As a writer, you should always go through your copy multiple times, looking for various things that can go wrong. As copy editor Jennifer Morehead notes in the upcoming edition of Dynamics of Media Writing:

“I’ve tried to approach stories of every kind in the same basic way: They *must* be accurate, they *must* be clear… Someone always notices,” she said. “Errors in any story, from local crime briefs to big features, erode credibility.”

And when you are done, find someone you trust who can provide your work with another look.

Everyone needs an editor. (And I’m sure there are at least a dozen errors in this post, so feel free to be mine…)

GAME TIME: Can you spot the fake news?

Fake news means roughly whatever anyone wants it to mean at this point in time. For some, it is satire, partisanship or general trolling meant to fool the public. For others, if the information doesn’t jibe with their worldview, it must be fake news. For journalists, true “fake” news is information purported to be real but lacking in any factual or substantive information, regardless of intent.

The tricky part about spotting fake news is that the fakers have become exceptionally good at mimicking the style, structure and approach journalists take to storytelling. Even people trained to be suspicious of information and verify stories before publishing them can be fooled. To help people see how well their BS detectors function, a pair of Fellows at the JOLT lab built a game that present real and fake news, asking the participants to determine which is which.

The Factitious system not only provides you with the stories, but can provide you with the sources if you need a little help. In addition, if you misjudge a piece, Factitious fills you in on the telltale signs you should keep an eye on for future encounters.

To play the game click here!

(H/T Tracy Everbach, University of North Texas for the head’s up on this)

 

Spell words right or the “Terriorists” win

When it comes to mistakes, people often say, “Well, it’s not set in stone.”

Unless, of course, it is.

COLUMBIA CITY, Ind. (AP) – The designer of a Vietnam War memorial in northern Indiana says a misspelling on a bench seems to be getting too much attention.

The memorial was put in place Tuesday outside the Whitley County courthouse in Columbia City. The word “terrorism” was misspelled on a nearby bench.

The artist argues that it’s such a little thing and that people shouldn’t be paying this much attention to it.

“This is the important part: the guys that gave their lives,” Murphy said. “A mistake on a bench is a pretty small thing to worry about where there are so many other things you should concentrate on.”

And we owe them not only a debt of gratitude, but also the time and effort needed to spell their memorial properly.

Why Word Choice Matters

Check out these two Tweets from big-name media outlets:

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The gist of these is the same, but consider the CBS tweet’s use of “for” and how much trouble could occur as a result of that word. This implies the guy is guilty and has engaged in fraud, something that has yet to be proven in a court of law.

“For” fits a pattern of X results in Y. You get paid for working at your job. The pay results from the work. You get kicked out of class for cheating on a test. The suspension comes as a result of the cheating. One presupposes the other. What happens if this guy isn’t found guilty?

The WaPo tweet is more accurate in what happened. He has been arrested and he has been charged with a crime. Guilt comes later, if at all. (Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of the use of “disastrous” in the tweet, as that sits between opinion and hyperbole, but it’s probably going to be OK once a reader digs into the story and sees what happened with Fyre.)

It’s unlikely that a tiny turn of phrase in this situation will devastate CBS. That said, a multi-million-dollar labor dispute is hinging on a single comma, so it never hurts to be careful.