On trustworthiness and the weight of accuracy

One of the things I love about working for a smaller paper (smaller being used loosely here — the TH has a total coverage area that reaches about 100,000 people) is how connected it feels to the community. People rely on it. They regularly toss their two-cents in on the comments section. They know the reporters and the editors, and subsequently, they usually figure out that I’m the intern pretty quickly.

Generally speaking, people trust the paper. When I go to public events, most people are willing to talk to me. When I call sources on the phone, they accept that I have an idea of what I’m doing without much question. When I wind conversations down, they almost never seem to question that my ability to get what I heard right.

After two semesters working at the Missourian, where just about all of my sources know to expect an accuracy check, the people here seem to implicitly expect that I’m going to get it right without needing one. And in a sense, this has taught me a lot about what it means to have authority as a reporter. I’m realizing that the work I do is directly reflective of the trust my readers have given me, and my writing and reporting has to live up to that trust.

Now, let me be straight — it’s not like I’m writing about some obscure procedures involving nuclear physics or anything.  When you’re covering a Fourth of July celebration, people generally aren’t worried that you’ll mess up them saying how much fun they’re having and how great it is to celebrate America.

However, even when the work I do is more complicated, my sources still trust the work that I’m doing — when I’m writing a short feature or explaining future potential options for road construction or figuring out how the EPA plans to clean up a contaminated site or localizing reactions to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision. When I hang up the phone or walk away from the interview, both the source and I trust that I’ll make the right calls in the final story.

On one hand, having my sources trust me is a fantastic, relieving feeling. At the Missourian, it makes sense that I have to take some extra steps to earn my sources’ trust. The community is aware that I’m just getting started and that I’m still a rookie. It’s not that I won’t go the extra distance here in Dubuque, it’s just that generally, I walk into interviews several steps ahead of where I’m used to being. When I think about it, being trusted by my sources raises my confidence in my own reporting. In fact, I have to be more confident in my own reporting, because it’s one of the expectations that seems to come with an increased level of trust.

On the other hand, that higher level of trust has made me think even more carefully about the importance of accuracy. While I’ve always felt the weight of accuracy very strongly, I feel it even more here, in a sense. Not only do I need to be accurate because I’m a journalist and it’s a huge part of my job description, but I also need to be accurate because my community and my sources have faith in me to do so.

I’m not totally sure how to explain it, but there’s something about knowing that my community and my sources trust me implicitly that makes me push myself even more to make sure I live up to that trust in every way.

Week 5 summary: Short profile of a new manager at a local homeless shelter, Dubuque’s Independence Day air show, a Fourth of July celebration in a nearby community, an issue piece reported from a Fourth of July Ice Cream Social, an advance for a meeting about potential road construction, an advance explaining the EPA’s proposed plan at a contaminated groundwater site, publication of a Sunday tech story, three Ask the TH questions, draft of a story for the features department to be published next week

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