ONA ethics code draft supports accuracy checks, cites cases where okay for source to preview article

NEW YORK – Accuracy checklists make sense. Allowing a source to preview an article that includes quotes offered during a prior interview could be a more logical part of a B2B editor’s fact-checking process.

These two recommendations, among many others, are proposed in an initial draft of the Online News Association’s ethics code. Still a work in progress, ONA’s code aims to provide members with a choice of options for customizing their own ethics guidelines.

As noted by Associated Press standards editor and ONA project leader Tom Kent during a previous ENU interview, a “building blocks” approach is being employed.  It would let any journalistic organization (or individual blogger) “create an ethics code that is thorough and transparent while reflecting how that organization or blogger sees journalism.”

A key contributor to the code’s accuracy section is noted ethicist Steve Buttry, who has addressed the topic at length on his own blog site. For the many B2B editors required to do their own fact-checking, Buttry suggests basics such as “ask sources to spell name & title, then verify what you wrote” and “when someone cites numbers, ask for (and check) source.”

While writing an article, says Buttry, “note facts that need further verification.” Final checks before submission should include having “someone check your math.”

A critical question many reporters fail to ask their source, the ONA draft version indicates, is “How do you know that?” Explains Buttry: “Even highly placed officials can jump to conclusions or rely on unverified information from underlings. When a source tells you how he knows, it makes sense to report that along with the information.”

Buttry also references Craig Silverman, author of the Regret the Error book and blog and editor of the Verification Handbook. Silverman “advocates that journalists use checklists to prevent errors, just as pilots and surgeons do. Consider whether your organization should require use of such a list.”

The Accuracy chapter addresses when article sources should be allowed to verify facts in final drafts of stories before publication. “This is more difficult to do in the fast publishing pace of digital journalism than it was when newspapers were publishing primarily in a 24-hour cycle,” the advisory notes. “Most news organizations approve of having reporters read a passage of a story to a source in at least these two cases:

  • “Situations where the reporter is unsure of facts or is trying to resolve conflicting accounts of a situation.
  • “Complex stories where the reporter lacks expertise and wants to ensure accuracy with a final check with an expert source.”

(Editor’s note: In its current work-in-progress, ONA’s code encompasses several dozen sections. One of those – Removing Material from Your Archives – will be covered in a future ENU issue. The topic drew the most interest during ASBPE’s recent Ethics Town Hall workshop.)

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