Common mistakes of stories and how they affect credibility

Several weeks ago I pointed out that a story that ran in a community paper — a microlocal, online-only publication from my hometown — was a ‘stewpot of crappy journalism.’

This being the Internet, it got back to the paper’s editor who asked me, to her credit, why it was so bad. We spent about two hours messaging back and forth and several lessons were learned. By me: I should be less harsh in my characterizations. By her: Journalism standards exist for a reason (I’ve embedded the PowerPoint I created for her at the bottom of this post, or you can get it here).

That reason is credibility. As a former editor once said “If I can’t trust you to get something on Elm Street right, how can I trust you to get something right about Somalia?” Sloppy writing, sloppy editing and sloppy presentation all detract from a story or publication’s authority.

It’s something I’ve tried to stress to students and interns over the years. I’ve been collecting string and making a list of the most common mistakes in stories. Here it is:

Category 1: Factual mistakes

These are the ones that kill you the fastest. You lose credibility when you make a mistake and someone knows it. A friend of mine wrote a 300-plus page book on flying and made a reference to the old Doogie Howser TV show. He got the channel wrong. A reviewer in Amazon.com’s review section asked “How can I trust anything else you’ve written?” He was pissed. She wasn’t wrong.

-Getting proper nouns wrong, especially locations. Solution: Double-check against published sources
-Getting names and title wrong. Solution: Double-check with source
-Sequencing an event wrong. Solution: Create a chronological outline to make sure you’re clear with what happened, ask sources for their recollection and clearly timestamp within your notes (I always put a square around a time a source told me something happened).

Category 2: Style mistakes

You often see these when broadcast outlet stories are converted into Web stories, or when you have a microlocal publication writing about something. The AP Style tends to be weak or non-existent. It matters for credibility because people who consume media — even the Millenials who like to communicate in texting language — are used to seeing certain conventions and consistencies. Want to tick off a finicky reader? Try writing “New Haven, Connecticut,” on first reference and “New Haven, CT” on a second reference in the story. AP style can be famously arcane (for a time, “blondes” were women and “blonds” were men), but it’s been around forever and is the industry standard. Its rules exist for a reason the reason is that consistency is a sign of credibility. 

-AP style mistakes, such as using the wrong abbreviation for something. Solution: Use the AP Stylebook.
-Consistency mistakes, such as referring to the same thing multiple ways (“Connecticut,” “CT,” Conn.”). Solution: Use AP as a guide or create an internal stylebook of your own that creates rules.
-Familiarity mistakes, such as referring to someone by their first name unless he or she is under 18 or there is someone with the same last name in the story (i.e., in an interview with Pete Rose, don’t write “Pete said”).  There are times when you can do this — profiles, mainly — but generally it’s to be avoided. Solution: Use last names except in the above circumstances.

Category 3: Structural mistakes

This is where inexperienced writers get fouled up the most, and where readers can get the most frustrated. These are mistakes in a story or paragraph’s construction that weaken the story and make the reader question the writer’s skill level.

-Overloading mistakes: Putting too much information into a story or paragraph. There’s a great scene in Anne Proulx’s The Shipping News where a new reporter — who’s accidentally a reporter — goes to cover an accident and starts the story with what the people in the accident had for breakfast.  Too much detail and not enough of it was relevant.  Solution: Evaluate each line ruthlessly, asking yourself “Does this fact serve the greater purpose of this story?”

-Things that don’t fit together mistakes: Paragraphs are composed of sentences of related topics. When you change topics, change paragraphs. Solution: Define “topic” narrowly.

-Backing into the lede: This is when there are paragraphs of preamble or throat clearing before the reader gets to the actual news. It’s frustrating for the reader to have to wade through non-relevant descriptions just to find out what happened.  Solution: Start with the news or get there within the first two or three grafs. If you’re using a nut graf, it should be in the top 10-15 percent of the story.