Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Go ahead, people, take more cheap shots at journalists

I was listening to an NPR call-in show recently when someone called in to say that she really hates journalists.

“They’re all idiots,” she said, then talked about how cutbacks at her local Gannett-owned newspaper meant very little coverage of state and local government.

The fact that maybe all those journalists didn’t lay themselves off didn’t seem to matter to the caller, who proceeded to accuse journalists of not caring about the facts, and committing the terrible sin of not fact-checking.

I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret of journalism. Reporters don’t fact-check stories and, usually, neither do editors. As for spelling and grammar, newspapers and websites are ejecting skilled and knowledgeable copy editors because they just get in the way of getting the news out faster. With the web, if a word is spelled wrong, they just fix the mistake – if it’s caught – and recache the page. Problem solved.

Making generalizations about reporters and criticizing them for the state of American journalism may be fun, but it’s like complaining to us that the color registration is off on the pages.

People who criticize reporters usually have never worked as one. Try it sometime. Go out and try to cover a government meeting like the city commission or even the county commission. Read the agenda and the 800 pages of supporting documents. Figure out what’s important, and might be story worthy.

Or just do general reporting, getting assignments from an editor. Make appointments with sources, meet them, interview them and then put it all together into a coherent account.

People often complain that reporters are bad at choosing sources. Well, I don’t go out and look for people with the word “liar” tattooed on their forehead. I take what they say at face value and report it accurately.

The relationship between a reporter and a source for a story is a fragile one. The reporter is betting, based on his skills and knowledge, that the source is telling the truth. When you’re working on a daily deadline in journalism, you don’t have the time to do background checks on everyone you interview, and even back in the old days of journalism, fraud ran rampant in the news pages. People always were claiming to be something they weren’t, and the ability to check a person or source out was very rudimentary and time-consuming.

However, when I was a temp at The Palm Beach Post and possessing a semi-cube in the library operation, there always was a librarian on duty to field calls from reporters about sources they encountered. The librarian would check their criminal history and driver’s license records in newspaper-paid-for and –accessible databases, and report back to the reporter, who then could assess the credibility of a source.

Those days are long gone.

Military and veterans groups often have a lot of criticism for the news media for printing stories of fake veterans and bogus war heroes, but the problem is that there is no rapid system for a reporter or editor to check out a person’s claims of military service or derring-do. It can take up to six weeks to get information from the military on whether someone served, and if he or she actually was a combat hero. No one likes to hang on to a story for a month and a half, and I have to confess that if someone spins a tale of military heroism but refuses to provide proof, it’s probably best to just leave that person out of the story.

One sentence construction that can preserve a reporter’s credibility is to avoid this kind of writing.

Jones served in the Army in the 173rd Division, saw combat in Marjah, Fallujah and outside Baghdad. He received the Silver Star and Purple Heart, and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Instead, a narrative can be constructed this way.

Jones said he served in the Army in the 173rd Division, and said he saw combat in Marjah, Fallujah and outside Baghdad. He said he received the Silver Star and Purple Heart, and said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Most importantly, the sentence should indicate if Jones offered proof of his service by providing a DD-214 (discharge papers) for the reporter’s inspection, or if he did not.

Inserting “said” and “said he” may seem to interrupt the flow of the writing, and it does in a way, but it also protects the reporter from the accusation of speaking in his own voice. Now all the attribution is to the source, who is making the claims and has to defend them. This may frustrate veterans who are used to having their stories taken at face value, but a real veteran won’t be offended by a reporter’s request for proof.

I would always tell reporters that instead of looking for veterans in homeless shelters, they should call the local American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, AmVets, Marine Corps League or Navy League post, and that the veterans there might give the reporter a hard time but provide the straight scoop and a real veteran for an interview.

It has always fascinated me that people will curse and condemn journalists, then talk about Fox News, which also employs journalists, and not all those journalists are conservatives, yet Fox reporters are perceived to somehow be different, and more committed to truth and accuracy.

I have a ready riposte for anyone who responds to my explanation for wanting to record interviews so I can be accurate in my quoting with a remark that it’s pretty unusual for a reporter to have that attitude. I interview the person and take notes, but unless the person has something really key or important to say, I don’t put that person in the story.

And I don’t go around calling sources idiots or accusing them of lying to me. I take this job seriously.


August 1, 2012 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, The news business | , , , , ,

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