Journalism’s scientific method

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I wrote the following essay in Journalism and Democracy, my senior capstone class at the Missouri School of Journalism. In it, I reflect on ethical experiences I’ve encountered in journalism and what I’ve learned from them.

Verification. It’s the difference between rumor and account. It’s about never assuming and always confirming. It’s about knowing what you know, knowing what you don’t know and knowing what you don’t know whether you know.

I consider accuracy to be of the utmost importance, and to achieve that, journalists must verify information; as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel preach in “The Elements of Journalism,” the field’s essence is the discipline of verification. I also think accuracy is often taken for granted. When one purchases The New York Times, one expects the content in there to be factual. Many of my non-journalism friends are aware of an editing process, but they often have no idea the extent to which my peers and I go to make that happen. I sometimes joke that I’m a professional Googler simply because it’s likely I’ll spend far longer than the typical user searching for information from a credible source, and I’m much more skeptical of my sources than the average user. Although people often do take it for granted, they notice when it’s gone; Fred Vultee’s recent study shows that copy editing impacts how readers perceive news and its monetary worth, and Craig Silverman found in a recent report the importance of being transparent with attribution and other news aspects in building media brand credibility.

It seems like it might be simple to undergo the verification process, but it’s more of an exact science than someone might think. Having been on the reporting side of the process, I understand the difficulty in getting everything right the first time or even knowing what you should ask about. When reporting, I always err on the side of caution and assume that I might be wrong, so I ask my sources to confirm absolutely everything. I’m always glad I do; for example, I was in a situation this past month when I was almost positive I was correct, yet I ended up being incorrect. I thought a woman had received her first gluten-free cookbook from her mother, but it turns out the cookbook was a gift from her mother-in-law, which ended up making more sense because the woman’s husband was diagnosed with celiac disease. Had I not verified this information, it might have been published incorrectly, which still would have changed the meaning of the story, even in that small way.

Above all, verification to achieve accuracy requires a healthy level of skepticism — and by “healthy,” I mean a willingness to question the most basic of facts and an insatiable curiosity to seek answers to the questions you have. When I worked as an assistant news editor — essentially, a teaching assistant — on the Columbia Missourian’s interactive copy editing desk, I found skepticism to be an attitude that took time and practice for many newer copy editors to acquire.

One night, I spent about an hour and a half editing an interactive infographic after a copy editor had given it a first look. On the surface, the bar graph made logical sense for the data it showcased; the data directly supported the point that the article was trying to make. However, when I looked into the sourcing of the data, I realized that the data collected were all from different sources that used different collection methods. Although the numbers very well could have been correct on an individual basis, when put together, the information was entirely out of context, giving the reader an erroneous picture of what was going on. The reporter, copy editor and I spent quite a bit of time talking about the importance of information in context and about vetting sources carefully. By the end of the conversation, both recognized the importance of skepticism when compiling and editing information, and we had found a few ways in which the reporter could change the graphic to make it more contextually accurate. If the sources hadn’t been verified, readers could have been viewing erroneous information.

Ideally, a journalist who verifies information has an acute attention to detail that enables that person to pick up on seemingly minor potential errors that could change the entire tone of a piece. For example, at one of my summer internships, I was reading the fairytale-wedding centerpiece of the Celebrations section and couldn’t find the local Mexican restaurant the bride’s grandfather owned, El Toro. Instead of accepting that it might not be listed, I dug a bit deeper and searched for her family’s last name. I was surprised to discover that the “restaurant” was actually the highly successful fast-food restaurant chain Del Taco; this would certainly change the meaning of the sentence, which at the time sounded like her grandfather was a small-business owner. I called the reporter to confirm, and I was correct; she had been unsure of — and hadn’t verified — the name of the grandfather’s successful restaurant. If this had not been corrected and had been published as “El Toro,” the newspaper would have had to run an embarrassing correction.

At another media outlet where I worked, one of my duties was to back-edit the text of broadcast transcripts accompanying video clips on the website. I often listened to the videos while editing to make sure the two were consistent. The morning a major Supreme Court ruling was announced, I discovered that the video said the ruling had not passed, even though the text and the ruling itself said the ruling had passed. I immediately alerted my supervisor, who pulled the video off the website temporarily for re-editing. In that situation, the word “not” changed the entire meaning of the news story. If no one had checked for inconsistencies, viewers who only watched the video — which, more likely than not, would have been the majority — would have received erroneous information about the ruling.

As someone who has always thought analytically and logically, I appreciate that verification is essentially journalism’s scientific method. As Kovach and Rosenstiel discuss, this way to evaluate the accuracy and credibility of information is the closest we as a profession can come to being objective, as journalists come from different backgrounds with different knowledge bases and perspectives and then use that information to make decisions about what to cover and how to cover it. After all, the verification process is about not only getting the existing facts right, but also making sure all of the information, context and perspectives are there that should be.

I think verification and accuracy are parts of journalism that are underemphasized and, as a result, should be emphasized more; many outside the media industry don’t know the scope of the verification process. I’ll provide one last example: About two months ago, a prospective student’s mother stopped me after a journalism school tour and started asking me questions about being uncomfortable in a newsgathering situation. It became apparent after a few minutes of talking with her that she was referring to discomfort with content; she was ultimately worried that her son, raised a conservative, would be forced into covering a politically charged story in a way different from his inherent beliefs. After I cleared up the difference between opinion pieces and news stories, I went into detail about the verification process — about how her son, and every other journalist here, is expected to include multiple perspectives on an issue and find evidence that the information collected is accurate and forms, as Kovach and Rosenstiel say, “a practical and functional form of truth.” I could see the relief on her face and increased respect of our program because we emphasize accuracy, and I think it’s something that should be emphasized equally at all media outlets.

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