Preaching the Value of Verification

In a piece last month for Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor asks: “What’s copyediting worth these days?” and concludes that in order for news organizations to really harvest tangible value from good editing they should “claim their professionalism publicly, prominently and persistently, yet discreetly.”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is far from a new idea, of course,  – it’s something many folks including myself been tooting about for years. I’d thought I would share one example of how a news organization I studied went about doing this.  The idea of course is that it is easy for journalism insiders to forget how little the average person knows about how we go about doing our jobs – just ask one of my students when they first learn how much work goes into rigorous fact-checking. And even before technology exploded and the economy imploded, our credibility was in free fall because people didn’t know why they should trust us.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel participated in the New Media, Enduring Values project along with three other news organizations and the Committee of Concerned Journalists and the University of Missouri in 2006 – 2007. Without going into too many details about the project for now, the paper took one of the core values of journalism – verification, or getting it right – and tried to find new ways of bringing it to life on the Web.

The first step was something along the lines of what Doctor was calling for. They wrote  a column and created a video explaining the importance of verification and how journalists go about it and linked both in a prominent box online that also invited readers to contribute their expertise and opinions.

I find the column, linked above, by Bill Kovach, founding chairman of CCJ, to be particularly insightful in that it offers an interesting and tangible example in which a controversial story “began as a conversation between the journalist and you the public. It was a story in which your views and your insights became part of the reporting. It was also one presented in a transparent fashion so you could see how the material was obtained and how it was verified.”

The story, a nine-part series by reporter Crocker Stephenson, was augmented by a blog in which Stephenson detailed his reporting process long before the story ran, soliciting input and engaging in discussion with readers. Although this has since become more common, at the time it was rare and still remains one of the better examples I’ve seen of getting and keeping readers involved in an investigative, narrative piece.

For researchers, it’s difficult to measure results  because any one effort to, as Doctor says, “claim your professionalism” isn’t likely to change people’s perceptions overnight, and often news organizations don’t sustain these efforts for very long (I found Milwaukee’s with a Google search but it’s no longer featured on the site, for example).

I’ll talk more about how Milwaukee’s efforts to bring verification to life online in a later post and what they learned in a later post. 

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