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The essential guide to responsible journalism

A couple weeks ago, I did a column on readers’ most common misunderstandings about journalism, which I believe contribute to many unjust criticisms of our work.

A reader accused me on Facebook of trying to pass the blame entirely on readers.

Never one to shy away from self-critique, I have compiled a roundup of some of the biggest journalistic mistakes I’ve made or observed, and the lessons learned:

1.) Be upfront.

Early in my career, I was working on a story about the finalists for a township public safety director position, one of whom had been forced out as police chief in a neighboring jurisdiction over an improper relationship with another city employee.

l initially planned just a roundup of mini-profiles, and that’s what I told the public safety director finalists, but my editor wanted the story to focus more on the township giving serious consideration to hiring a controversial person. That’s how the story appeared.

I neglected to call back the former police chief and tell him the story’s direction had changed.

The next day, he cornered me before his interview with the township board and chewed me out.

I deserved it.

Journalists should always be upfront about their intentions.

2.) Knock on one more door.

When I was at the Lansing State Journal, police shot and killed a young man sitting in the passenger seat of a car.

Police initially wouldn’t say whether the young man was armed. All the Lansing press corps was trying to answer that question. I was called in from vacation.

The LSJ had run the license plate on the car and had the address of the woman who owned it. Another LSJ reporter had knocked on the door a couple times already, with no luck, but my editor asked me to try once more on my way home.

I got her, and she invited me in to talk. Just as I was about to leave, the woman’s boyfriend, who was driving the car at the time of the shooting, burst through the door, yelling and cussing, just released from police questioning. Through a lot of tense questions, I got him to tell me the passenger in the car had a pistol and had pulled it from his belt before police shot him.

We were the only news outlet to have that information the next day.

Taking the time to knock one more time usually pays off.

3.) Be right, even if you’re not first.

One of the biggest embarrassments in modern journalism was the day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, but most outlets reported the court had struck it down.

The first part of the court’s ruling had rejected President Barack Obama’s arguments justifying his authority to require every American to buy health insurance or pay a fine, but the court later in the written opinion said the administration had that authority under tax law.

Most news outlets rushed out with breaking news saying the law had been struck down. SCOTUS Blog, a website dedicated to high court news, took the time to read everything and, though they weren’t the first to report, they were the first to report the right information.

It is always better to be right than first.

4.) Know what you don’t know.

My first exposure to national and international press was as a Battle Creek Enquirer reporter covering the 2010 spill of nearly a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Nothing the out-of-town press wrote was wrong, per se, but their shallow descriptions of my hometown made me cringe, and all of them tended to overstate the importance the river, which was dirty before the oil spill.

I don’t fault them for it, because it’s hard to write on deadline about a place you’ve never been, but I made a mental note after observing all that to do a bit more homework about the places I visit before trying to encapsulate those places in a couple sentences.

5.) Numbers can lie.

Also in Battle Creek, I was working on a story about mental health in schools and found state data on student suicide attempts. Most of the districts I covered reported zero, others reported numbers in the low single digits.

One district had more than a dozen.

When I reached the superintendent of that district, he explained that his staff had recorded a “suicide attempt” any time a student had expressed suicidal or severely depressed thoughts to a staff member. Other districts had only reported more overt acts toward self-harm.

Even black-and-white numbers can be inaccurate, and you have to make one more call to make sure you understand exactly what the numbers are telling you.

As a journalist, there’s always more to learn, but those are the big lessons that, as an editor, I try to impart to my reporters.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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