What Communication Pros Want From Fact-Checking Journos

Posted by: in Communication Strategy on October 13, 2011

There is a great discussion going on online about how and when reporters should allow sources to review their work before publication, especially in complex fields such as science and medicine. For an enormously comprehensive overview, see Seth Mnookin’s take on the subject from yesterday.

But one of the voices that has been lacking in the discussion has been the communication professional. While we’re often middlemen, we have less at stake than either reporters (who are, properly, fiercely protective of their independence) or researchers (who are, properly, fiercely protective of the sanctity of their peer-reviewed data). So if I might be so bold as to speak on behalf of sources everywhere, here is the ideal baseline for any vetting process:

  • You have no obligation to share anything. As long as the info is correct (see below), I’m not going to say one word about pre-publication review.
  • But … if you are at all confused by the data, please let us help. Send the info in whatever format you like, but please let us eyeball the facts and — if needed — have a follow-up conversation. The line between correct and incorrect can be crossed with just a little lost subtly.
  • And if you don’t want to check quotes, let a third party sit in on interviews. This is one of those hugely controversial issues; journalists don’t like the idea of sources sitting with “minders.” But having another person involved makes it easier to adjudicate any post-interview he-said, she-said debates about misquotes. I’ve heard plenty of sources complain of being misquoted, but never about an interview that I witnessed. (I realize that, in some cases, the minder’s job may be to intimidate or shackle the source from touching on certain topics. That’s not what I’m talking about here, and I stand with AHCJ.)
  • Context is important. I understand that the structure and length of a piece may sometimes make it tough to shoehorn in a certain quote with the appropriate context, but we would rather have a 5-minute follow-up conversation about the new direction of the article than an out-of-context quote.

And here’s what, in return, reporters should expect out of sources (and the communications folks who love them):

  • Rapid response. If you’re doing us the courtesy of checking, we’ll make sure we keep your deadline sacred.
  • An understanding that your goals may differ from ours. You are the storyteller, and we shouldn’t be mucking with the story you’re telling or the way you’re telling it if it’s accurate.
  • No whining. I’m not going to complain about a negative story if the facts and context are right. I understand that you’re not under any obligation to make us look good.

That’s not to say this is a recipe for lasting peace and understanding. My goal, in helping scientists communicate, does not always overlap with the need for length-restricted pieces of journalism that often need narrative arcs and conflict to jump off the page. But, at a minimum, I’m hoping it reduces the amount of post-publication angst. For everyone.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a director at WCG in the product group, where he specializes in media. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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