Direct Evidence FAQs
If a blogger witnesses an accident, would he be considered a direct or indirect source? Where does one draw the line of who is a proper journalist in these circumstances?
Remember that we classify all witness testimony as direct evidence, even though we give more weight to experienced journalists who are on the scene to observe. There’s a tendency today to deﬁne journalism as an activity rather than as a profession. But while one does not have to be paid by Fox News or CNN to be considered a journalist, there are important journalistic standards and ethics that even a non-professional should follow.
Are there ever instances where certain evidence, known to be valid, is not included in a report?
That happens all the time because journalists almost always gather far more information than they can possibly ﬁt into a story, even a very long one. In some ways, the greatest editorial judgment involves deciding what information evidence, quotes — to leave out. That said, it is unethical for a reporter to withhold information from a story in order to make it more one-sided or in the belief that he or she is telling a larger truth and that some evidence would confuse the reader.
Who checks the fact checkers?
First and foremost, those we described in Chapter 3 as the peer review process in journalism. It is not one of the nicer personality traits, but journalists love to spot mistakes by other journalists. Second, people who have been accused of using ﬁctional or misleading information can and do respond directly to the fact-checking organization, to news outlets and through social media.
Does the news media deliberately stage events to report on?
Ethical ones do not. In the occasional instance when a photojournalist stages a photograph, for example, that photographer has violated journalists’ code of ethics, which prohibits staging of events. The consequences for such a violation vary depending on the circumstances, but they likely include being ﬁred.
I feel like “word-of-mouth” is so easily skewed. Is witness testimony always reliable?
You’re describing two diﬀerent things here. Word-of-mouth describes hearsay a witness describes to someone else what he or she saw, and the reporter interviews only the second person, not the witness him or herself. But yes, eyewitness testimony is not always reliable — that’s why we characterize it as a weaker kind of direct evidence. Many people have been convicted of crimes based on bad eyewitness testimony. It’s important, then, for journalists to corroborate what witnesses tell them with other evidence and sources.
Indirect Evidence and Inference FAQs
Can indirect evidence be just as compelling as direct evidence?
Second-hand evidence is less compelling, but sometimes it’s all we have.
Why is "a man on the street" interview irrelevant evidence?
The so-called man-on-the-street interview is notorious for asking people with no special knowledge or expertise to share their opinions. In other words, if they are neither Authoritative nor Informed they do not add any substance to a report.
It’s interesting that inferences are the least valuable form of indirect evidence. I feel that cable news shows (O’Reilly, Maddow and so forth) are all inference and contribute to the intense partisanship we’re experiencing.
Some inferences may be stronger than others, but all should be approached with some measure of skepticism. You’re correct, though, that cable news channels provide a ton of inferences. There are two main reasons for this: (1) The emphasis on opinion and commentary, which spark conversation and controversy, and appeal to a particular audience. You’re far more likely to encounter persuasive language, assertions and inferences in programs dedicated to partisan opinion than you would in a just-the-facts news report. (2) 24 hours is a lot of time to ﬁll and, unfortunately, anchors, reporters, sources, contributors and guests do much speculating to ﬁll the time. There is a case to be made that television and more-recently-created digital media have exacerbated partisanship.
Should a spokesperson’s account ever be taken as evidence in the absence of any other evidence?
Yes, it should, but with the understanding that it’s weak evidence. Spokespersons are not independent and they sometimes harbor a partisan agenda — either of which could motivate them to lie or hide facts. No evidence should be ignored, but all evidence should be given the proper weight. And direct evidence is more trustworthy than indirect.
Can a news report be eﬀective or get its point across without being transparent?
Eﬀective? Yes. Honest and credible? No. Journalists have to tell the reader as much as possible about how they know what they know and also what they don’t know. If they withhold such information and then the story turns out to have been wrong or misleading the journalist’s credibility will be damaged.
Is there ever a case where a reporter should not be transparent?
In rare cases, possibly, and only after consultation with supervisors. Putting someone’s life in jeopardy is one example.
Should journalists indicate in their reporting that information provided is provisional or should that be left to news consumers?
Part of transparency is being clear about what’s unknown or what information can’t be shared and why it can’t be shared, so in this way reporters are upfront about the need to follow a story over time. In other words, when a reporter says in a story “this could not be independently veriﬁed before publication,” she is honest about a gap in her knowledge and she acknowledges the need to continue to monitor the story as the attempt to verify the information continues. Usually, it’s an unspoken rule. News consumers should understand that stuﬀ happens — new evidence emerges, a new development occurs, the reporter has to correct an error — and follow the story over time to get the best version of the truth.
How can we be sure that a reporter's transparency is truthful?
News outlets have checks and balances to ensure honesty. If a reporter willfully misleads readers, that means he or she also has misled the editor. Readers or viewers will complain and the creators of the false content will be held to account. That, at least, is the theory of how journalism should work. This course is meant to teach you what you should expect from news outlets and to let them know when you see them falling short.
Can you explain what’s considered context in a story?
One shortcut to spotting context: look for history, projections, comparisons, connections. Start with the headline/title and the summary of the news report, which is known as the lead in written stories. These will give you a sense of what the story is about. Every report must cover the basics — answer the questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how as they relate to the subject of the story. If it’s a news report about a trial, for example, there’s no story without details on the alleged crime, the victims, court dates, lawyers and judges and witnesses involved. These details are not context — they’re the substance of the story. Context supplements the foundational information, as in, “This is the ﬁrst trial under a new state law that increases penalties on drunk driving.”
Are context and perspective the same thing?
Not really. Context is used to provide perspective. Context is background or additional information that is necessary to understand the scope, impact, magnitude or meaning of new facts reported as news, the circumstances that form the setting for an event or statement; ideas or facts that give greater meaning to a news report so that it can be better understood and assessed. For example, to say that President Trump’s approval rating is 40% as of today tells you very little about what that ﬁgure means. In order to provide meaning or perspective, you need to know what that ﬁgure was earlier and what it was for other presidents at similar points in their presidency.
In understanding a story, is it always necessary to have the full context?
The full context would often require too much time and space to relate. For example, in the case of approval ratings cited above, you wouldn’t need to give the ratings of every president for the last 50 years. However, journalists give enough context for the news consumer to understand the story and its signiﬁcance and the consumer, in her eﬀort to be an informed citizen, could seek any other information she needs to form an opinion or take action.
When Veriﬁcation Fails FAQs
Is it always a reporter’s fault if news is wrong if he or she followed the veriﬁcation process?
No. Journalism is a group eﬀort. Reporters have editors who can introduce mistakes in the editing process. And sometimes, sources lie.
What is the eﬀect on a reporter if the story was published too quickly or without the full picture or context?
That depends on the situation. For example, if the reporter’s editors had pushed her to publish before she was ready, then she will be held harmless by the organization.
What must a reporter do if a source that seems reliable retracts their statement after an article is released?
There isn’t much one can do other than report the retraction and try to ﬁnd out the reasons behind it. Some journalists believe that if you give anonymity to a source who turns out to have lied, you should then be able then to identify that source by name. That approach would be useful in many cases, but it hasn’t caught on.
What motivates people to fabricate stories?
If you’re referring to journalists’ sources — they may fabricate stories to promote themselves or to further a political agenda. There may be deep-seated psychological reasons, too, but we’re not qualiﬁed to speak to that. If you’re referring to journalists themselves, some have fabricated stories to seek glory and win prizes. In the eﬀort to illustrate a “larger truth” about poverty, drug use, sexual assault or something else, a journalist may be tempted to deliberately avoid veriﬁcation and publish something they feel makes an important point even if it’s not based entirely on facts. In their eﬀort to serve what they feel is a greater good, they do a disservice to news consumers and to the truth.
Why do reporters fall victim to “fake news” and false reporting?
The time pressures of being a journalist are largely responsible for this. Fake organizations take pains to sound or look legitimate or even pose as the real thing, which makes it tempting for real ones to jump on “news” about hot-button issues. But the bottom line is that the reporter — or editor — doesn’t verify. Laziness can also be a factor. For more, see this Columbia Journalism Review article: “How fake news sites frequently trick big-time journalists”
Should reporters fact-check on the spot more often or should they take the chance that a speaker speaker is lying?
Reporters should always try to push back when someone appears not to be telling the truth, which is why it is essential that reporters prepare as much as possible before they start asking questions. Even so, it is not possible to verify everything at the time of the interview. Before publication, however, journalists should seek to at least conﬁrm statements that are controversial. Any false statements from the source should then be countered in the story.
Can a reporter face penalties for failure to open the freezer?
Yes, especially if that failure is the result of laziness rather than an honest mistake. The reporter who failed to open the freezer in News Orleans after Hurricane Katrina didn’t get direct evidence. Afterward he apologized and explained in detail what went wrong. He was accountable for his error. Today, Brian Thevenot is an editor at Reuters. But if a reporter, especially one just starting his or her career, consistently makes signiﬁcant errors, it’s likely that he or she will lose their job.