We’re Making Too Many Mistakes; We Must Start CQ’ing
You’ve hopefully heard about the meetings we’ve been having regarding the mistakes we’ve been making. If you haven’t been to one of the discussions yet, watch for an invitation.
As has been said many times at the sessions so far, it’s important upfront to acknowledge that we’re doing more good work — but without more good people. Almost everyone is stretched. Thanks are in order for all that you do.
But, then there’s this: We’ve posted about 100 corrections a month this year.
There is no acceptable number of mistakes per month, but there certainly is an unacceptable number.
One hundred a month is unacceptable.
In the past couple of weeks, editors from across NPR News, NPR Music and Programming have talked about why this is happening and what needs to be done. In coming weeks, reporters, producers, hosts and others will gather to do the same. We need everyone’s input.
Even as we continue to talk and brainstorm, it’s clear that one thing needs to happen now and is not optional: Before a story is turned in to an editor, the facts must be CQ’d.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Latin phrase cadit quaestio and its connection to journalism, here’s what it’s about:
Every name, date, place, number, title — all 13 things on the NPR Accuracy Checklist— must be double- or triple-checked by the writer before the copy goes to an editor or is posted. By copy, we mean scripts, Web stories, DACS lines, Facebook posts, captions, headlines – anything that’s going to be seen or heard by our audience.
The act of doing that checking is CQ’ing. When something is CQ’d, “the case is closed.” You’re telling the editor that “I know this is correct because I’ve checked more than once against impeccable sources.”
Impeccable is a key word. The promise cannot be based on something like “the Timessays she’s 65.” No, you should have firsthand, solid confirmation of your own (including her birth date). It doesn’t mean “I’ve checked my math once.” No, you’ve run the calculations two or three times. And it never means, “I’ve trusted my memory.” You’ve gone back, for instance, to listen to or read FDR’s speech after Pearl Harbor to verify that he said Dec. 7, 1941, was a “date” that would live in infamy, not a “day.”
You can put a note at the top of your story telling the editor that everything has been CQ’d. You can highlight every fact in bold or green or whatever color you like best as a sign that it has been checked. You can append a list of all the facts that have been put through the process. You can, imagine this, talk with the editor about how you verified each fact. We are going to pursue technological ways to highlight CQ’ing. But for now, just be sure to do it and to explain or show how it was done.
This doesn’t absolve editors. They must check the checking, though they shouldn’t change facts that have been CQ’d without talking to the writer. Speaking of talking, they have to challenge reporters: “What’s your source?” “Did you check his birth date?” “Where’s the document?” When editors send stories on to shows or to digital, they’re promising that everything’s been checked by the reporter and then checked again.
Some may say “I don’t have time” or ask “can’t a copy editor do this?” Well, we’re all pressed for time. But if the facts are right from the start, the checking is going to go quickly and will open up more time to sharpen stories. What’s more, rigorous CQ’ing at the front end will cut down on the amount of time spent fixing mistakes and writing corrections. Double-checking the spelling of a name usually takes less than a minute. Fixing a story, writing a correction, explaining to a supervisor why you made the mistake and — if you’re a repeat offender — being called in for a conversation that ends with a note in your personnel file take much longer.
Finally, whether you’re writing a script for broadcast, a DACS line, an introduction, a story for the Web, a photo caption or a tweet about what we’re reporting, it’s part of the job to get the facts right the first time. Yes, we’re all in this together and we need to back each other up and check each other’s work. Yes, mistakes will happen. But if we double-down on accuracy — if we CQ the facts at the start so that “the case is closed” — we can sharply reduce the number of mistakes we make.
(“Memmos;” June 18, 2018)
June 18, 2018