The fast-paced newsroom at The Wall Street Journal adheres to a set of standards to assure quality reporting. The Associated Press emphasizes fact-checking over speed. Still, strict routines aren’t enough when communication breaks down in the newsroom.
“No surprises journalism” is the core of quality news journalism in the United States, also at the influential The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). It means that the ones being criticized have the right to take part of the basic facts of the story and to respond to them before publication.
Keeping the stakeholders of a story informed about the facts is one of the “showstoppers,” as the principles are called in the WSJ newsroom. The World Press Institute fellows met with Deputy Editor-in-Chief Neal Lipschutz and Deputy Standards Editor Christine Glancey to discuss fact-checking routines.
The WSJ, like most news organizations in the United States, strives to maintain its credibility in the eyes of readers and viewers. The conservative daily has five to six full-time standards editors, unlike many smaller news organizations that don’t have dedicated editors focusing on standards and quality.
In general, the credibility of the U.S. press is being called into question, which makes fact-checking even more important. Forty-four percent of U.S. adult citizens has “a little” or no trust in the information they get from news organizations, according to a Pew Research survey last year.
The WSJ standards editors monitor the newspaper’s reporting based on four principles:
- Attribution. Are the sources of the facts stated explicitly and clearly?
- Quality of sources. What expertise or insights do the attributed sources have? Are they first-hand sources or referring to other sources?
- Tone. Does the language and choice of words introduce bias to the story?
- No surprises. Everyone involved in the story should be given the chance to comment.
The list of quality markers could easily be made longer, like the 10 “hallmarks” of Reuters’ journalism, the WSJ editors say. But the advantage of only four principles is that the quality checks get faster. The journalists prepare an oral brief based on these four showstoppers, so the standards editor can address them one by one. Thus, also with quick breaking news stories, quality assessment can be done in a matter of minutes, the WSJ editors tell us.
At The Associated Press, the editors recognize speed, but emphasize thorough fact-checking.
“Once a story is out on the wire or on social media, it’s very difficult to correct or redact,” says Amanda Barrett, Vice President of News, Standards and Inclusion at AP. ”Incorrect reporting hits our credibility hard.”
Still, mistakes happen. Both the WSJ and AP editors mention situations where the communication between the journalist and the editors has failed.
The WSJ editors mention three stories from 2012 and 2013 that had to be unpublished due to breaches of the newspaper’s guidelines. A freelance travel reporter had received free and discounted services at the hotel he was reporting on, without telling about this to his editors. The WSJ doesn’t allow reporters to take discounts not available to the general public.
Last November, an AP reporter was fired after publishing a story about an allegedly Russian rocket hitting a Polish village, using an anonymous source. According to the AP standards, a reporter must share the source’s identity with an editor. The reporter claimed in an internal chat that the anonymous source had been vetted this way, but in reality, the editor was not aware the source would be used.
“This case made us realize that when we were working remotely during the pandemic, we hired a lot of new staff that weren’t introduced to our guidelines as thoroughly as they should have been,” says Amanda Barrett. “We have now started holding monthly regular standards meetings with our staff.”
Photo above: The WSJ newsroom on March 27, 2023. (Photo: Alexander Uggla)