Our purpose is to pursue the truth. Diligent verification is critical. We take great care to ensure that statements of fact in our journalism are both correct and in context. In our reporting, we rigorously challenge both the claims we encounter and the assumptions we bring. We devote our resources and our skills to presenting the fullest version of the truth we can deliver, placing the highest value on information we have gathered and verified ourselves.
Accuracy in our reporting
We tell stronger, better-informed stories when we sample a variety of perspectives on what we’re covering. The best reporting draws on the experiences of experts, influential figures and laypeople from across the demographic spectrum.
A story could accurately claim, for example, that unemployment in the Washington, D.C., metro area in the fall of 2011 was quite a bit lower than the national average. But that fact would probably ring false to a resident of the city proper, where the unemployment rate was considerably higher at the time. And such a story would describe a world vastly different from D.C.’s Ward 8, which had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Any of these vantage points could make for a technically accurate story. But drawing on all of them allows for a much more nuanced report. Means and medians can be informative, but true insight often comes from surveying experiences all along the spectrum.
Before our reporting reaches the public, we check “everything that walks or talks or acts like a fact.”1 While it may seem elementary, a simple checklist can be a powerful tool to make sure we haven’t made any oversights. Here’s a set of questions to ask before you call any story complete:
- Is every name and title correctly spelled? (And, in the case of radio, correctly pronounced according to either the subject himself or someone else with direct knowledge of how to say it?)
- Are the quotes accurate and properly attributed?
- Have I reviewed my spelling and grammar? (Special note: yes, it’s important for NPR journalists to spell names, places and other key facts accurately in their radio scripts because those details end up in our Web reports.)
- Is every number and calculation correct? (Related tip: triple-check any references to millions, billions or trillions; confusing them is one of the most common mistakes made. Also: triple-check your references to percentages to ensure that you shouldn’t be saying “percentage points” instead. If you’re not sure which you should use, ask one of the reporters or editors who cover business and the economy or someone from the Planet Money team.)
- Are all the terms being used correctly? For example, was the suspect really “arrested” or is he only being questioned?
- Does every fact in the story match the information with any photos or graphics associated with it? (Special note: again, it’s important for NPR journalists who are primarily reporting for radio to check their pieces against such material.)
- Do I need to check a source’s “fact” against what others are saying? Advocates can skew things in their favor.
- Is the story fair? Read or listen one more time. Try to come to it as if you were a listener or reader, not the reporter, editor or producer.
- Does it hang together? Our conclusions are supported by facts. We pause before broadcast or publication to ask if we have answered all the questions that can be answered. If important questions can’t be resolved, we make sure our listeners and readers know what they are.
- Source: Margaret Low Smith. [↩]
NPR journalists and managers often get the opportunity to deliver speeches and appear on other news outlets’ programs. Bear in mind that everything we say in those forums must meet NPR’s standards for accuracy. The general standards are:
- If you wouldn’t report it on NPR, don’t say it in public elsewhere.
- Avoid conjecture and hyperbole. Be especially careful about the phrase “I think,” which implies that you’re giving an opinion as opposed to reporting, and dilutes the clarity of your words. If asked “what might happen next?” resist speculation. Use your knowledge and reporting to offer analysis and insight based on solid evidence.
- Stick to what you know. If the question is not connected to your beat, explain that you’re not prepared to address the subject or cite what other NPR journalists and other trusted news organizations have reported.
On the air and online on July 22, 2011, when an explosion in Oslo was followed by reports of a gunman attacking a youth conference on a nearby island, we were careful to report only what we could reasonably assure listeners and readers was the best, most authoritative information at the time. We reminded them many times that events were unfolding rapidly and that there was much that wasn’t known. As information changed, we explained what was new. And we provided attribution for every important detail.
By midday (ET) there were many tweets and other social media postings about a shooting spree at the island. But we focused our first update about that situation on what we could say regarding what officials knew:
Aftenposten now writes that ‘TV 2 News channel reported that police also have received notification of a critical situation on Utoya, where Labour Youth is holding its annual summer camp.’ Journalist Ketil B. Stensrud messages that the prime minister has said on Norwegian radio ‘there is a critical situation at Utoya and several ongoing operations as we speak.’
Utoya is an island in a fjord about 45 minutes from Oslo.
And we followed soon after with more information and cautionary language:
The Associated Press just moved this alert: ‘Norway Labor Party spokesman tells AP several people shot at youth camp outside Oslo.’
Norway’s Varden newspaper is quoting a local ‘county secretary’ as saying he saw four people got shot there.
Norway’s NRK news says that terrified campers are texting and tweeting that they are hiding. There are also reports of some trying to swim to safety.
It’s important to remember that at this point, much is not known about what’s happening in Norway — for instance, whether the explosion (or explosions) in Oslo are related to the reported attack on the youth camp.
And we did not report there was a link between the incidents until there was official word:
‘It is now clear that there is a connection between the explosions in the city center’ and the shootings at a youth camp on the nearby island of Utoya, police tell Norway’s NRK news.
No recent mistake has done more to highlight how important it is to confirm information that may cause grief with multiple, authoritative sources than NPR’s erroneous report that Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was killed during a Jan. 8, 2011, shooting rampage in Tucson. The mistakes that were made have been detailed by NPR’s ombudsman and the ripple effects as the news spread via social media sites have been analyzed by NPR’s social media strategist, Andy Carvin.
Here’s where we went wrong:
- The initial sources were officials in the local sheriff’s office and one of his station’s reporters. But we did not press the critical issue of whether these sources had direct knowledge of Giffords’s condition or were just passing along what they had heard. We also did not determine whether the sources themselves might have been relying on a single person for their information. Even if we talk to many people about something or cite multiple other media reports, if they are all relying on the same single source for their information that should be a red flag warning us to hold off.
- When we did get word from what we thought was a credible “second source,” it was a member of Congress (who was in Washington, not Arizona), who told an NPR correspondent that he had heard Giffords was dead. Again, we did not determine if the lawmaker had any direct knowledge.
- We did not wait to get confirmation from any of the “primary” sources that must be contacted before reporting an individual’s death: the person’s family (or a family spokesman) and officials (if they have direct knowledge and are authorized to speak) at the hospital.
- Senior NPR editors were not drawn into the decision-making process before the news was broadcast. Involving them in the decision-making would have slowed things down — exactly what was needed at that moment, as an offset to our natural instinct to want to be “timely” with important news.
Any falsehoods in our news reports can cause harm. But errors that may damage reputations or bring about grief are especially dangerous, and extra precautions should be taken to avoid them. We don’t report an individual’s death, for example, until it has been confirmed by authoritative sources and we’re certain the family is aware. In those cases, err on the side of caution. Go slowly, and above all, get clearance from a senior manager.
This cautious, considered approach also applies to what we do on social media sites. (For more on that point, see the discussion below about accuracy online.)
Great journalism comes in part from the collaborative efforts of reporters, editors and producers, who all play a key role in ensuring accuracy. We believe in teamwork. But good editors are also good prosecutors. They test, probe and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.
“A successful editor has to help the reporter see the big picture, but also needs to fret over details,” says Jonathan Kern in Sound Reporting. And, “above all … editors are responsible for making sure that reports are accurate and fair.”
Ensuring we have our factual details correct is only part of the accuracy equation. It’s just as important to make sure we’ve correctly interpreted those facts in our reporting. The burden is on us to ensure that the way we use the material we collect — sound, photos and words — is true to their intended meaning and context. When quoting or paraphrasing anyone - whether in a blog post, an online story or in an on-air “actuality” – consider whether the source would agree with the interpretation, keeping in mind that sources may sometimes parse their words even though we accurately capture their meaning. An actuality from someone we interview or a speaker at an event should reflect accurately what that person was asked, was responding to or was addressing.
When making a general assertion of fact in a story, the reporter and editor should be able to immediately identify the source and explain why that person or organization is credible and authoritative. This is essential to the editing process and it also lets us stand by our reporting in a clear and convincing way if a story comes under question. We should never be in the position of looking for corroboration after a report has been published or broadcast.
In addition to this care in the way we source general assertions of fact, the language of such assertions must be precise. We shouldn’t put ourselves in a position where we believe the thrust of a statement is correct and supported by the facts, but the statement is open to question because we didn’t express it with enough precision.
Accuracy is at the core of what we do. We do our best to ensure that everything we report faithfully depicts reality – from the tiniest detail to the big-picture context that helps put the news into perspective. Facts are incredibly slippery. Studies of press accuracy routinely find mistakes – sometimes many of them – in news media reports. This means that when journalists – even the best ones – think they’re getting it right, they’re all too often wrong. Errors are inevitable. But our best defense against them is constant vigilance. This is why we systematically and rigorously review our facts before we make our reporting public.
Using information from non-NPR sources
There is one type of material we routinely get from our wire services (The Associated Press and Reuters) that does not necessarily need to be attributed to the wire service. That is where a wire story is about a public event — such as a press conference, a speech by a public official in a public setting, an official statement of a government agency, a congressional hearing, and the like. In those cases, we reasonably expect that the wire services are reliable conveyors of those quotes in the same way we regard the transcript services we use for these events. But we must use caution. Whenever possible, check the wire service’s work against any audio or video recordings or other wire-service renderings of the events. NPR.org readers will notice if the transcription of a quote does not match the audio — even by a little. And if there is any reason to believe that a wire service report has inaccurately quoted someone or taken the speakers’ words out of context, we must check the record before using that material.
Attribute, attribute and attribute some more. No material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution. This includes material from Associated Press reports. We should not, for example, produce news “spots” or other pieces that closely resemble wire service stories. Our writing should be our own. There is no excuse for writing that repeats the wire stories that we use word-for-word, or nearly so.
When in doubt, err on the side of attributing — that is, make it very clear where we’ve gotten our information (or where the organization we give credit to has gotten its information). Every NPR reporter and editor should be able to immediately identify the source of any facts in our stories — and why we consider them credible. And every reader or listener should know where we got our information from. ”Media reports” or “sources say” is not good enough. Be specific.
Also, in cases where stories are developing and the news may be changing from moment to moment, state clearly what NPR has and has not been able to confirm on its own and what key questions remain unanswered. (Source: Bruce Drake.)
In breaking news situations, timeliness and accuracy can be in conflict. When news is breaking, we may need to pass along information reported by others because the public should know about it immediately. This is particularly true when safety is an issue (severe weather events or other types of emergencies, for example). In all cases, take special care in using information from wire service stories, reports by other news organizations, newspaper clips or articles in other publications.
If it’s determined that something is so important that the public needs to know about it now, even before we’ve had a chance to thoroughly vet the information, be transparent: state what we’re certain of, what we don’t yet know and how our information was acquired. And again, if we have information that might cause significant grief (to a victim’s family, for example) or might potentially put someone in harm’s way, we do not report it until it’s been thoroughly verified and senior editors have given their approval.
Few in our audience will know or care which news organization was first to report a breaking news story. But if we get it wrong, we leave a lasting mark on our reputation. In rare moments, we might be late; we might not be perfect. But we will always be responsible and careful in exercising our best judgment — the judgment that has earned our organization the respect and loyalty of its audience. This is the core of our programming philosophy. (Source: NPR managing editor memo, 2003.)
For years, NPR journalists have been cautioned by their editors that an all- too-common pitfall of fact checking is verifying “facts” through second sources, such as other news media outlets, that do not have “direct” knowledge about what they supposedly know. The problem has only gotten more serious as the Internet has made it ever easier to find what others have reported as “fact.” That’s why we value primary sources for our facts and we check them before broadcast or publication. And we value the work of the NPR reference librarians in helping our journalists get to those original sources (to email them, look for Reference Library in the NPR internal email address book).
We value our own reporting and fact-gathering over that done by other news outlets. We strongly prefer to confirm and verify information ourselves before reporting. When reporting on events we did not witness personally, we seek multiple independent perspectives to get a sharper, more accurate understanding of what happened. And if we can’t verify what others are reporting, but still believe the news is important and needs to be reported, we tell listeners and readers that NPR has not yet independently confirmed the news. Too often, incorrect information is passed down from one news story to another because of the failure of the first outlet to get it right. We strive to never pass on errors in this way.
It’s often easier to falsify one’s identity online than it is in the offline world. And tonal or contextual nuances can be lost in online exchanges. So when appropriate, clarify and confirm information collected online through phone and in-person interviews. For example, when a social media posting is itself news, try to contact the source to confirm the origin of the information and attain a better understanding of its meaning. We must try to be as sophisticated in our use of social media as our audience and users are. The social media team is a key asset in this effort.
Of course, it’s not always obvious how to apply journalistic principles to the social media arena. One resource always available to NPR journalists is our “social media team.” Its members have expertise in collecting information from a variety of sources, in establishing to the best of their ability the credibility of those voices and the information they are posting, and in analyzing the material they use. Always make clear to listeners and readers what has been obtained from our original reporting and what we’ve found posted in social media outlets. And to the greatest practical extent, spell out how the information was checked and why we consider the sources credible. We may also invite our audience to assist in our efforts to monitor and verify what’s being reported on social media. Such crowdsourcing does not determine what NPR journalists report, but it does add to our knowledge. The team can be reached via email (look for SocialMedia in the NPR internal email address book).
When determining whether to pass along information being reported on social media sites by other news outlets or individuals, be thoughtful. When we point to what others are saying, in the eyes of many we are effectively reporting that information ourselves. This is true whether the platform is an official NPR social media webpage, a personal blog or a Twitter page that is written by an NPR journalist.
But we also know that reporting about what’s being posted on social media can give our listeners and readers valuable insights into the day’s news.
One key is to be transparent about what we’re doing. We tell readers what has and hasn’t been confirmed. We challenge those putting information out on social media to provide evidence. We raise doubts and ask questions when we have concerns — sometimes “knocking down” rumors circulating on the Web is of enormous value to our readers. And we always ask an important question: am I about to spread a thinly-sourced rumor or am I passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats?
Above all, proceed with caution, especially when news is breaking and accounts vary widely about what is happening. Reach out to other sources for confirmation. And the general standard is simple: Tweet and retweet as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a “traditional” NPR.org news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or “knocking down,” provide it.
News moves fast on the Internet, and we know that speed and accuracy are fierce rivals, so keep your guard up. Ask questions, report and engage as you would in any public setting. But remember that everything you say or do in a social media environment is effectively a public statement from an NPR journalist, so don’t pass along inaccurate information.
Accuracy in visual journalism
It’s easy to represent data inaccurately or misleadingly, especially in charts and infographics. Double-check your numbers and the way you portray them to make sure you’re imparting the proper information.
Accurately presenting data includes guarding against false precision. Politicians may claim, for instance, that a budget plan will reduce deficits by $1.512 trillion over 10 years. Given the many variables and uncertainties involved in such forecasts, carrying the number out that many decimal places could give readers a false sense of certainty — precisely what the politicians would like, but not necessarily what is most “true.” In such cases, rounding may be a better approach (to, for example, “$1.5 trillion”).
When reading raw numbers, pay particular attention to the effects of different interpretations. Absolute numbers and percentages can paint very different pictures. It is true, for example, to say that the U.S. is the world’s largest contributor of foreign aid. It is also true to say that of the world’s major donor countries, the U.S. often contributes among the least of its G.D.P. towards foreign aid. When citing such statistics, be sure they are making the appropriate points, and that you’re offering the necessary context.
Give careful thought to the way data are broken out when showing rates of change. Small differences can look much larger than they should – and large differences can look much smaller than they should – if a graphic is not appropriately scaled. Consult the multimedia team (look for DigitalMedia in the NPR internal email address book) if you have any questions on such matters. (Source: Robert Benincasa.)
Increasingly, photos and video are being posted online by individuals. In considering whether to use those materials, do your best to verify their accuracy and when in doubt, do not publish them.
Images can be manipulated. Old video can be reposted and made to appear as if it’s new. Photos or video taken in one part of the world can be repackaged and portrayed as being from somewhere else. Again, when in doubt, leave them out.
As with all information, bring a healthy skepticism to images you encounter, starting from the assumption that all such images or video are not authentic. Then, with guidance from NPR’s multimedia and social media teams (and if legal issues are involved, NPR’s legal team as well), work through a series of questions, including:
- When was it posted?
- Do the images or video match what has been distributed by professionals (wire services, news networks, etc.)?
- Is it original work or copies of what others have done?
- Does this person have the legal right to distribute the work and has he made the materials available for others to use?
More resources: The National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics is posted online.
The images and graphics we use to help tell our stories assist us in our pursuit of the truth. Some guidelines are simple: Captions and labels must accurately describe the events in the images they accompany. The same is true of the information we present online in graphics. Some things are more subjective and require more judgement: Be fair to the people in photos and honest with our viewers. Flattering photos can be as deceiving as unflattering images. Use images to convey information and tell stories, not to make the subjects look better or worse than the facts warrant. Likewise, our graphics present information in ways that educate and illuminate. We do not skew data to mislead viewers about an issue or event.