Monday, October 10, 2016

Principles And Verification Tasks For Journalists And Their Readers

I've mentioned I'm taking an online class called Journalism Skills for Engaged Citizens from the University of Melbourne.  Last week I got one of the optional books they recommend - Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's The Elements of Journalism.  The copy I got from the library is a 2007 edition and given the changes in electronic journalism since then, I'm sure the newer version has been updated quite a bit.  Nevertheless the chapter on verification is still worth thinking about - both for journalists AND for readers (listeners, viewers, etc.)

Much of this stems from, according to the authors, a 1997 meeting of journalists concerned about the future of journalism in the age of digital and commodified journalism.  The meeting led to a group called the Committee of Concerned Journalists.  (I chose this link because it lists their principles of good journalism.)

In Chapter 4, they talk about verification being central in defining good journalism.  I'm going to offer several of the guidelines for journalists including techniques for verification.

Note:  I've done some editing because the authors have written quite a bit about each point and the one and two word titles don't necessarily capture the gist.  I've tried to give a slight bit more to aim the reader in the right direction.  I've added some links at the bottom* for a little more depth.

Let's start with "Intellectual principles of a science of reporting"
  1. Do Not Add.  Never add anything that wasn’t there (don't make anything up)
  2. Do Not Deceive.  Never deceive your audience
  3. Transparency.  Be as transparent as possible about your methods and motives (more on transparency below.)
  4. Originality.  Rely on your own original reporting (get the facts yourself, don't just rely on others, a particular issue in the age of 24/7 news and online rumors)
  5. Humility.  Exercise humility 

 Transparency Questions
  1. What does my audience need to know to evaluate this information for itself?
  2. Is there anything in our treatment of this that requires explanation, including any controversial decisions made about leaving something in or taking something out?
  3. Journalists should acknowledge the questions their stories are not answering. a. Misleading sources: Corollary to transparency. Truth goes both ways. Sources need to be truthful. Some say a misleading source should be revealed. Part of the bargain for anonymity is truthfulness.
  4. Masquerading (getting stories with deception) - ok if you follow principles: Three Step Test:
    1. Information must be sufficiently vital to public to justify deception
    2. There is no other way to get the story
    3. Journalist should reveal to audience whenever they mislead sources to get info, and should explain reasons, including 1. why the story justifies deception and 2. why there was no other way to get story.

I'd like to think that I've incorporated most of this in my blogging.  Some comes from having to verify in academic writing, some comes from my personal values of keeping the public interest in mind.  I know that I have often, for example, spoken to readers directly about how I've gotten a story, why I'm writing it a certain way, what cautions they should take interpreting what I've written.  The most typical warning I'd guess, has been reporting meetings when my fingers couldn't keep up with what was being said.  For example, from a redistricting board meeting:
"Below are my very rough notes.  Use with caution, until the official transcripts are available."
And finally I get to the list specifically addressing Verification.   There's a fair bit of discussion on the definition of 'objectivity' and whether a journalist can achieve it.  The authors say that the original use of 'objectivity' coming from Walter Lippmann and others, acknowledged bias in the writer, and offered 'objectivity' as a method that focused on techniques of verification that would unite journalists regardless of their bias.  (I would argue that even those techniques have their built in biases to be aware of, but that's for a different day and post.)


Techniques of Verification
  1. Edit with skepticism - check line by line - how do I know this? Why should a reader believe it? what is the assumption behind this sentence? If the story say events may raise questions, who suggested that? Reporter? Source? Citizen?
  2. Keep an accuracy checklist (See below - this is particularly useful for readers as well as journalists.)
  3. Assume nothing.  (See Protess Method below)
  4. Tom French’s red pencil - he made a check after each sentence if he’d double checked it.
  5. Be careful of your sources  

Accuracy Checklist (useful for readers to think about when reading/hearing news stories)
  • Is the lead of the story sufficiently supported?
  • Is the background material, required to understand the story, complete?
  • Are all the stakeholders in the story identified and have representatives fro that side been contacted and given a chance to talk?
  • Does the story pixies or make subtle value judgments?  Will some people like this story more than they should?
  • Have you attributed and/or documented all the information in your story to make sure it is correct?
  • Do those facts back up the premise of your story?  Do you have multiple sources for controversial facts?
  • Did you double-check the quotes make sure they are accurate and in context?  


This is all good stuff for me (and other bloggers) to be thinking about.  I even put a note about originality in a story I posted recently about a Superior Court decision.  I was quoting the Alaska Dispatch's report, but couldn't figure out how to get the decision online.  I noted the journalist's need for originality and my attempt to get the judge's decision in my post.  Yesterday an attorney told me you can't get them online, you have to go to the courthouse and buy it.  I called the court just now trying to see if there was a way, but they haven't been able to point out a link to get the decision.  They connected me to the judge's assistant and I've left a voice mail message.


*Short of getting the book itself, ideally the most recent edition, there are websites you can check on to get a little more depth on each of these points than I'm giving.

On Verification - Transparency, Humility, Originality

Informing the News - an essay based on a book by that also stems from the Committee of Concerned Journalists' work that overlaps a bit with the lists here.

Protess Method of Verification - a way of thinking about verification by the head of the Chicago Innocence Project.  It's the method he uses with students to determine which prisoners to work with on their appeals.

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