The higher the stakes, the more verification is required

Cecil RosnerQUESTION: I know that I’m supposed to get outside verification for things told to me by anonymous sources. But how about named sources? When is a reporter expected to get independent verification for information that’s properly attributed? Answer by Cecil Rosner, managing editor for CBC Manitoba and author of Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada.

This is an important question, and one that can lead to an interesting discussion about what a journalist’s core mission actually is. In my view, it can also help define some of the differences between daily, reactive journalism and investigative reporting.

First of all, it goes without saying that all journalism is driven by a deadline – whether it’s an hour, a day, a week or six months. The journalist’s job is to gather as much information as possible within the specified deadline, and then decide how much of that information can be reported. Often the deadline defines how thorough a job can be done.

Most daily journalism involves gathering comments and statements from people and quickly putting them in the newspaper or online, or broadcasting them. It’s important, though, to differentiate between comments and statements of fact. Publishing a diversity of comments on a wide range of subjects is what any good media outlet should do. Publishing statements of fact is more problematic, because it isn’t always obvious whether those statements are true. Getting “the other side of the story” or even many different sides doesn’t address this issue, because all those sides might miss the truth.  

In fact, the search for truth is arguably one of journalists’ most important missions. But how often do journalists stop to ask whether the quote they are printing or broadcasting is actually true? In the 1950s, many journalists readily quoted Sen. Joseph McCarthy as he waved a list of supposed communist infiltrators in the U.S. State Department. Similarly, many journalists quoted President George Bush and U.S. administration officials as saying that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. But how many of those same journalists bothered to investigate the accuracy of those claims? Was it not their duty to do so?

Some argue that journalists need only provide opposing viewpoints and “two sides of the story” to fulfill their mission. Mitchell Stephens, author of A History of News, has a good response to this theory. He castigates those journalists who “attempt to chain opinions to their opposites, hoping, it seems, that these beasts will annihilate each other, leaving what passes in journalistic thinking for the truth.” I am actually getting weary of hearing some American reporters apologizing for not being vigilant enough or checking more thoroughly when their government made unsubstantiated claims about Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11. The public depends on journalists to hold government and all powerful institutions to account at all times.

So, should a reporter be expected to get independent verification for information that’s properly attributed? I think daily journalism would be paralyzed if we waited to verify every bit of information before reporting it. We are entitled to know what the U.S. president, or the Canadian prime minister, or the head of the auto workers union is saying about important issues. If we are naming them, we can report what they say.

But this does not absolve us of the responsibility to test the accuracy of their statements. Otherwise journalists simply become megaphones for anyone with the means to disseminate a message. After the quotes have been printed and the clips broadcast, every newspaper or media outlet should devote resources to testing and challenging the statements, and trying to find out whether or not they are true. This is often the key differentiating point between daily journalism and enterprise or investigative work. Both types of journalism are necessary — one to inform us about what people are saying, and the second to enlighten us about where the truth lies.

Having said that, we also need to assess what kind of information is being reported and how high the stakes are in reporting it.

If a reputable and properly attributed source makes a statement that a certain individual is engaging in unethical or criminal activities, we should not report that and be satisfied to check for accuracy later. This problem often presents itself in live reporting or quick-turnaround deadlines, when there is little or no time to double-check statements.

During the Columbine School shooting crisis, many U.S. networks did live interviews with people purporting to be students with vital information about what was happening. It was later determined that some of those people were inventing stories and spreading false information. It’s always good to resist the temptation to be first with a story, if there’s doubt about the accuracy of important details. A good principle at all times is: the higher the stakes, the more verification is required before reporting a statement, whether the source is anonymous or named.

Cecil Rosner is managing editor for CBC Manitoba and editor of J-Source’s Investigative Journalism
J-Topic. He teaches investigative journalism at the University of
Winnipeg, and is the author of
Behind the Headlines: A History of
Investigative Journalism in Canada.