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Schenk: Journalists must verify stories or risk being burned by sources

March 27, 2010

Kathy Schenk talks to NewsTrain participants. Photo by Sarah Ruholl.

By Jessica Opoien
News Editor, Iowa State Daily

Preserving credibility was the focus of Kathy Schenk’s session, “The Skeptical Editor,” at the Associated Press Managing Editors NewsTrain workshop in Arlington Heights, Ill.

“The Skeptical Editor” was part of the “Nimble Leader” track — one of two offered at NewsTrain. Schenk, who teaches editing at Northwestern University, was an editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 1990-2009. She used examples from her time at the Journal Sentinel, along with other news examples, to teach the risks of editing without enough scrutiny.

“Your personal credibility and the credibility of your publication, that’s what’s on the line here,” Schenk said. “And the truth of it is, people lie. And some people lie to journalists, and some of the people who lie to journalists seem like the least likely to do so. And if you think this can’t happen to you — oh, it can.”

Schenk addressed the struggle to produce credible journalism in a fast-paced news cycle, when newspapers have less-experienced staff and even less time to spend editing stories.

Using an example of a story printed in the Virginian-Pilot that had been fabricated by the source, Schenk suggested a few key items to check when editing a story: facts that seem too good to be true, the number of sources, whether the sources have a stake in the story, whether information from sources has been verified, and whether the story’s timeline makes sense.

“Trust, but verify. It’s what you’ve got to do,” Schenk said, addressing the concern that reporters might be offended by intense questioning from an editor.

Guidelines for publishing potentially offensive content were discussed, as session participants shared their own experiences along with an example Schenk gave.

The central theme for questions surrounding content that might offend was: “Know your audience” — and many participants echoed the guideline that offensive material should be published only when it is an integral part of the storytelling.

Schenk took a utilitarian approach to handling sensitive content that might upset those involved — using the specific example of the family of a boy who had drowned in a river with a blood alcohol content of 0.32, who was upset with the Journal Sentinel’s decision to publish that number in a headline.

“Our job is to inform,” Schenk said, after suggesting editors put themselves in the position of the people they write about and then decide if they are being balanced and fair.

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