Readers Grade ‘Rockford Register Star’ C+, But Sources Are Kinder

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Figuring turnabout is fair play, the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star is letting readers and newsmakers judge its performance in a series of “credibility report cards.”

The Gannett Co. paper kicked off the series by assembling a small group of readers, sources, and Register Star reporters to come up with a baseline grade of one to five on each of nine credibility criteria.

Last Sunday, the paper revealed its initial grades — and conceded it hadn’t aced the tests. Readers were the harshest markers, giving the paper the equivalent of a C+ average. On the nine criteria, the reader average came in at 3.66.

Reporters were only slightly kinder, giving their paper a 3.77 average. There were plenty of fours and even a perfect five in the reporters’ score, but they took their average way down by giving themselves an F on one category: “admit when there’s no story.”

The panel of sources — a mix of newsmakers and people who are simply quoted frequently — was the most forgiving grader. Sources handed the paper an average of 3.88, enough to earn it a B-.

“Our sources graded us the highest, the staff next, and readers graded us the lowest, which really shows us we have a lot of work to do in regaining trust with reader,” Editorial Page Editorial Wally Haas said in an interview Tuesday. “It also tells us that the sources have gotten to know us, and trust us. So hopefully as the readers get to know us they will trust us more.”

Haas said the credibility report card emerged from a workshop last September on how to build credibility and trust with readers, especially in light of the incidents of reporter fabrications last year at The New York Times and USA Today.

“I said, why not give readers a chance to grade us?” Haas said. “As editorial writers, we’re fond of issuing report cards and grading everyone else. Why not turn the tables, and let the readers grade us?”

The groups will continue to occasionally grade the paper over the next six weeks if big stories develop, Haas said. They will reassemble on the last week of May to go over one day’s paper “as part of the final exam,” the paper said in a note to readers Sunday.

“We’ll look at specific articles, talk about why something was done the way it was,” Haas said. “We want to look for solutions. How can we do our jobs better? What can we do to reassure you that what we’re doing day to day is credible and correct?”

Finally, on June 7, the groups will give final grades on the credibility criteria.

In the meantime, the newspaper is encouraging readers to submit their own grades through a form in the paper or on its Web site. And the paper will continue to revisit the report cards even after June, Haas said.

“We think this can have some shelf life,” he said.

Following are the criteria the three groups used to grade the paper on a scale of one to five:

Readers

Get the facts right: 3
Admit errors — quickly and fully: 3
Name names (be upfront about your sources): 4
Hire informed and competent reporters: 4
Treat all news subjects equally and with respect and dignity: 3
Report the good news, too: 4
Reflect the diversity that exists in our community: 3
Don’t let the opinion section influence the news: 5
Admit when there’s no story: 2


Sources

Get the facts right: 4
Admit errors — quickly and fully: 4
Name names (be upfront about your sources): 4
Hire informed and competent reporters: 4
Treat all news subjects equally and with respect and dignity: 3
Report the good news, too: 4
Reflect the diversity that exists in our community: 4
Don’t let the opinion section influence the news: 5
Admit when there’s no story: 3

Newsroom:

Get the facts right: 3.5
Admit errors — quickly and fully: 3
Name names (be upfront about your sources): 4.5
Hire informed and competent reporters: 4.5
Treat all news subjects equally and with respect and dignity: 3.5
Report the good news, too: 5
Reflect the diversity that exists in our community: 3.5
Don’t let the opinion section influence the news: 5
Admit when there’s no story: 1.5

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