From grammar to accuracy

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‘Do you put a disclaimer on your articles to identify the ones written by citizen journalists?’ I’m sure the questioner didn’t mean to sound insulting. She really believed that there is a huge gap between ‘real’ journalists and citizen journalists, and that ‘real’ journalists are much more trustworthy. Similar criticisms distinguish between bloggers and ‘real news.’ Many people are confused about where the lines are drawn, who to trust, and where the TC Daily Planet fits in all of this.

The Daily Planet gets news from a variety of sources. The overwhelming majority of our articles are written by citizen journalists, ranging from a volunteer producing a news story for KFAI to a free-lance writer who is paid for a story we have asked him/her to write. (We ONLY pay for assigned stories.) We have different standards for each of those sources.

First, we re-publish news from community media partners. We publish only original content from our media partners – not wire services, not syndicated material, and not press releases. We look for articles that have strong local interest or ties. We do not do fact-checking on these articles. That is the responsibility of the media partner that originally published the article.

Second, we publish articles from “our” bloggers and opinion columns or essays in our Voices section. Generally, these articles are the responsibility of their authors. We may do minor editing for grammar and style. We will not do major fact-checking. If something in a blog or Voices submission looks factually questionable, we might ask the author to clarify, or we might decide not to publish. We try to publish Voices articles that are interesting and well-written. While we prefer local content or local ties, there’s a little more latitude in Voices for commentary on national or global issues. We do not publish press releases in Voices. [Opinion or commentary articles from our media partners also go in Voices.]

Third, we publish articles submitted by citizen journalists in the community. An example is the recent article on St. Paul’s best-kept Christmas secret. Louise Ernewein submitted this article. I had never heard of her. I had heard of the Jackson Street Roundhouse, but did not know about the Christmas program. The article was interesting and well-written, the photos were great, and a few minutes of on-line checking verified the basic facts. Great! Louise told an interesting story with strong local interest, and she told it well. I want more stories like that! And I hope to meet Louise in the future and to get more stories from her. (Turns out she is a journalist from Britain, now married to a Minnesotan and living in the Twin Cities area.)

Finally, we assign articles to free-lance writers and interns. Some of these writers are paid, but nobody is getting paid enough. They are citizen journalists, who live in and write about our community. Their articles have to meet our highest standards for fairness, accuracy, and accountability.

Some stories are easier. An interview with a local figure or a story about a new theater opening may require the reporter’s vigilance to spell names correctly and double-check dates, but they do not stir deep controversy. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time, but the Daily Planet and our citizen journalists do as well as—and sometimes better than—any professional media. (One recent example: as Joel Grostephan worked on our story on local observance of Eid ul-Adha, I heard the morning report from National Public Radio incorrectly identify this Eid as “marking the end of Ramadan.” We got it right—they got it wrong. Happens to the best of us, but we try not to let it happen often.)

Other stories are tougher. They focus on issues that deeply divide communities or reveal facts that an institution or official would rather not see in print. Tough stories require a lot of work—research, writing, and sometimes lots of back-and-forth between editor and writer. That is just as true for citizen journalists as for professionals.

Keeping our reporting truthful and transparent is a big part of my job as editor, and a continuing challenge. I have to play devil’s advocate, question assertions, ask for documentation, and make the final decisions on when something is ready for print. I have a nasty, suspicious mind, which is a great asset in this job.

Our biggest assets, though, are the commitment and hard work of our citizen journalists. Dan Gordon, for example, digs deep for facts. Many of his articles focus on hot-button issues. That means repeated rounds of questions and discussion, sending articles back and forth, checking for facts, re-checking his careful notes of interviews, double-checking public documents, and spending lots of his time, and mine, before an article goes to print. (Look for a new report from Dan in the first week of January.)

No, we do not put any disclaimers on articles written by our citizen journalists. The Twin Cities Daily Planet is designed as a tool for citizens who want to share information, create community, hold the powerful accountable and work together for the common good. We strive for high standards of fairness, accuracy, and accountability. If you share those values, you are welcome to sign on as a citizen journalist and contribute articles, photographs, audio or video reporting.

If you would like to know more about writing for the TC Daily Planet, come to our writers’ group at Rondo Community Center and Library in St. Paul (University and Dale) on most Monday afternoons at 4 p.m The next meeting will be Monday, January 7, and it is open to anyone.

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