Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Common sense not so common

By David Ubben

Protecting our brand is something that’s more important today than ever, especially as young writers. All is takes is one lazy fact check to dent an otherwise exemplary career filled with awards and respect. (See: Mitch Albom)

I don’t have the most experience, but in my few years I’ve discovered that much of this business is just common sense. Sometimes we overlook the obvious and that can lead to unwanted consequences that could have been avoided by asking two questions:

1) What do you mean by that?
2) How do you know that?

Malcolm Moran came and spoke to our class today. Much of the discussion was him giving general tips of succeeding in the business, but it also branched off into a discussion about how to report on coaching searches, an event Moran referred to as “the demolition derby” of journalism. Specifically, coverage surrounding a prominent job opening in the Midwest last winter.

The mistakes that occurred during the coverage of that search probably could have been avoided if they had asked those questions. When someone calls you on the phone and says a man has taken a job, ask them how do they know that. When they tell you, dig deeper and get closer to the original source. If they can’t tell you how they know, then it’s not unreasonable to discount that information. If they know, but won’t tell you, it circles back to the idea that you should have earned the trust of that source to know that the person above them won’t hear their name. But if you’re able to dig deeper to the original source, even if you never reach it, you’ve got two, three, maybe four people corroborating your story.

Asking someone to clarify a statement provides clarity to your information. A simple concept, but too often people rely on surface-level information.

Sticking with the theme of coaching searches we spoke about this morning, when someone says, “All they have left to do before this guy is coach is dot the I’s and cross the t’s.” I doubt the contract has been drafted up but the author who conveniently saves their dots and crosses until after the document is finished. Follow it up. Ask, “Okay, what exactly has to happen before he takes the podium at an announcement press conference?”

Giving clarity to our information and providing more adequate sourcing of our information is just one of the ways to protect our brand as young journalists and prevent embarrassing ourselves. Sometimes doing that isn’t as hard as it might seem.

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