REGRETTING THE ERRORS

By John McCosh

Some of the most wince-inducing corrections of my journalism career accompanied my snarkiest column writing.

One time a developer proposed a Gwinnett County neighborhood with “Mimosa” in the name within the boundaries of a former landfill. I wrote future residents would need more than a few of the subdivision’s namesake drinks when they found out what was underfoot. Turns out the subdivision land was carved out of the larger landfill property and was not part of the dump.

As a real estate columnist I wrote there needed to be a stronger word than “vacant” to describe a downtown Atlanta building that stood nearly empty 18 months after it opened. That building wasn’t doing well, but the vacant one was the nearly identical tower next door.

Some combination of rush to make deadline and carelessness in pursuit of a joke was to blame for both. I regret the errors laced with snark, but not as much as the handful of mistakes in more serious stories that I racked up over two decades as an Atlanta journalist.

The Atlanta Press Club is hosting a panel discussion on fact checking March 30, 2016 and I look forward to hearing how reporters avoid mistakes in this era of posting stories online moments after an event ends. Back in the olden days a line editor read my copy before at least two copy editors checked the factoids. Working without that safety net must be unnerving.

For the past eight years I’ve worked as a PR guy at Atlanta nonprofits and learned a different perspective on fact-checking, errors and corrections. I can usually sense which journalists are least likely to suffer through a correction by their careful interview technique and the follow up later.

Here are some tactics I associate with the most accurate reporters and publications:

  • Key points are confirmed with similar but reworded questions posed at different points in the interview.
  • Quotes and important facts are excerpted from the overall story and emailed to the source for confirmation prior to publication. The source doesn’t get pre-publication veto power over the excerpted material, just a chance to flag a factual error.
  • An independent fact checker contacts the source to verify numbers, assertions and other content central to the article’s point.

I associate that last tactic with Atlanta Magazine and other outlets with enough time between interview and publication to allow such meticulousness. But even with today’s pressure to be the first to post news online, it’s important to slow down enough to confirm spellings and to double check the numbers.

One thing I learned once I switched to the PR side is it’s not worth inflicting the pain of a correction request on a reporter if the mistake is minor and doesn’t hurt the reputation of my employer. I’ve let more than a few mistakes go uncorrected.

That includes the time a reporter with a national financial publication talked to me about a story and I got the sense she might quote me. She kept calling me “Josh” and when I thought it might run in the paper like that, I gently let her know it’s “John” although people turn my first and last name into a contraction all the time.

You can read the article by Googling “John McJosh.”

John McCosh is deputy communications director for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

 

Register now for the panel discussion on fact checking

When: March 30, 2016, 6:30-8:15 p.m.

Where: Commerce Club, 191 Peachtree Street

Cost: Free for members, $15 for non-members