Newsrooms: be Accurate, Relevant and Productive

You won’t find a reporter who questions the importance of accuracy. It’s chief among the journalistic creeds.

Many, too, would understand the importance of relevancy to the craft — choosing to share what fits their publication’s audience and voice (though it takes some savvy to make those decisions consistently).

But what remains still foreign, even controversial, is the idea that reporting should be done with productivity in mind. A journalist should be able to say why they’re pursuing a story: what goals will be reached because of it?

For some this will resemble some chatter of the self-described ‘solutions journalism’ movement, which I am fond of, or fit the ‘designing for audience behavior’ prompt currently a part of the #jcarn blog circle.

Still the concern that idea brings up is that a journalist can drift into advocate, an important but very distinct and partisan effort. This runs counter to a journalistic belief that all information should be public, transparency disinfects and let the people figure it out. (I disagree.) A journalist should be an important tool for all parties in a community: the narrator of trends and provider of context, curation and information. That’s true. Journalist is mirror not decider.

So no, a journalist ought not explicitly say my piece is productive for this policy end or this group’s aims. But a journalist should say: why is this reporting I’m doing productive for my community to better understand itself?

So I challenge the notion that all information needs to be shared. Rather you should get in the habit of challenging every story with the question of whether it is accurate, relevant and productive.

Here are some examples of how to approach a story productively:

  • I found out a councilman is contracting a creative agency to manage a Twitter account. Put this in context: do others do the same? How does the budget line item compare to other expenditures? What work does the company do? Does it result in efficiencies?
  • I got tipped off on an extra-marital affair a nonprofit leader I report on is having. Does this represent a conflict with any public positions or stances she makes? How well known is she? How widespread is this known?
  • I received a leaked proposal describing a stealth company’s revenue projections. Will leadership confirm the numbers and offer additional context? Will leadership discuss lessons from the experience? How experienced is its founding team? How high-profile is their work?
  • I was forwarded a photo of a rebranded transit station. Will the transit agency confirm the change? Do you have any sources confirming timeline or accuracy?
  • I was copied on an email squabble between two civic group leaders. Do you know both well enough to understand the backstory? Is this part of a broader trend or division or an isolated fight? How many people does this impact?

Asking these questions can slow down the process, run against your instincts to get everything out fast and ask questions later. But you can be more than that.

That’s why in our newsroom we say our  reporting must be Accurate, Relevant and Productive.

This is the guiding principle we must instill in our product, particularly as I distance myself from daily editorial decisions. It’s something I speak about with great pride.