Check It Out

Failuresto embrace the ethicalobligation to “check it out” can misdirect or undermine public policy with sometimes deadly effects.

“Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

Updated, that ancient caution could warn, “Journalists whom the gods would destroy, they first afflict with hubris.” 

The antidote is skepticism and discipline. Together, they embrace the ethical obligation to “check it out.” The Internet and social media haven’t changed that if we’re talking about the importance of skilled, honest reporting.

Failures can misdirect or undermine public policy with sometimes deadly effects.

Two examples will suffice. The first is the now-retracted Rolling Stone cover story about a rape allegation at the University of Virginia. The second was the New York Times’ scoop-hungry repetition of Bush administration assurances that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Only the evidence-immune still believe there was a gang rape or WMD.

Rolling Stone defamed a university, a fraternity and individuals. The botched  story detoured our national discussion of sexual violence into male anxieties about false accusations of rape.

Times credulity supported the rush to attack the dictator who never attacked us. That war hasn’t ended. Had the Times been less of a player inside the Washington establishment, someone in the upper editing ranks might have taken a deep breath and asked, “Have you checked it out?”

I’ll get back to those debacles in a moment. First, however, I want to describe traditional daily paper newsroom practices because they still inform expectations of other news media. Over the decades, I’ve found little understanding of how news happens.

Reporters bring ideas to editors and editors assign stories to reporters. In either case, assigning editors expect reporters to tell them how stories are developing. 

That conversation is vital. It’s a chance to spot misdirection, bias or other problems while encouraging the pursuit of a valid story.

Reporters generally check inhouse files, usually previous stories or digital archives, and “Have you checked clips” is right up there with “Check it out.” Today, it could include “Have you checked Facebook?”

Sometimes, reporters know their sources and can evaluate their expertise and biases. Other times, they have to find sources, introduce themselves and explain what’s up. A lot of this always was done by phone; email hasn’t changed that. 

In all cases, this means developing sources on all sides of an issue. There is nothing so dispiriting as a single source in a story that obviously is more complex than that source allows.  

Checking multiple sources also reduces the likelihood of relying on seemingly disinterested sources who fail to mention their financial interest in the outcome of a story. 

Multiple sources also are prophylaxis against lies or deliberate misdirection. Sharing incorrect information in good faith is more common. That’s why editors always ask, “Did you check it out?”

In any event, we try to tell readers who our sources are or why they talked only if we didn’t name them. That attribution helps readers judge our decisions. 

Sources rarely agree. That’s why reporters often say they’re only as good as their sources. We look for the best we can find on all sides of any subject.  

It’s up to the reporter to keep asking until holes are plugged, contradictions are resolved or readers must be told there are answers we never found. All of that must be completed in a few hours. Most stories are finished the day they’re started.

Eventually, reporters write their stories. News judgment plays a big role here. Some stories clearly have a central, newsworthy and timely point: person shot, someone elected, store opens. Other stories suggest various ways to tell the tales. This is where the creative juices flow and reporters have to develop news judgment supported by facts shared with readers. 

After the reporter has rechecked facts, assured a fair presentation of whatever happened and double-checked the spelling of names, the story is sent to the assigning editor.

The text is examined for accuracy, balance, absence of the reporter’s bias and, of course, newsworthiness. Any journeyman reporter knows his or her biases and tries to avoid letting them affect the choice of stories, sources, angles and information. 

If the editor has a question, the reporter has to resolve the challenge. If the editor wants the story to take a different angle, the editor and reporter have to resolve that. Reporters who develop an expertise and earn editors’ respect often carry the day. 

On occasion, the story will be sent back for more reporting; there are holes that the reporter wrote around or didn’t see.

When editor and reporter are satisfied, the text goes to copy editors who not-so-secretly assume the worst; they see the raw product. You don’t. 

Names, dates and numbers have to be checked. Defamation has to be challenged. Addresses have to be in the right neighborhood; there is no hospital or university in Clifton, regardless of what the conventional wisdom is. 

If copy editors have questions, depending on the flow of news and who’s working, they ask the assigning editor or the reporter. This can be tense, depending on the personal relationships.

In a serious disagreement between the copy editor and the assigning editor and reporter, it can move up the chain of command for resolution. That’s never pretty but it’s better than publishing, say, a defamatory statement for which the copy editor feels there is insufficient support in the story. 

The copy desk also is a place where “style” and “taste” are enforced. Style means consistent use of numbers, abbreviations, titles, etc. Taste can mean editing a quote to remove “scumbag” from an athlete’s diatribe about a rival or changing outdated and politically incorrect racial/ethnic labels to whatever is acceptable that day.

After all of that, the copy editor writes the headline. Someone else already has designed the page, assigned a length to the story and the size of the headline type and number of lines. 

I’ve done that job. It’s a separate art. Career copy editors have a gift I never had. Think of the great headline during a financial crisis, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Or “Headless Body in Topless Bar” for a police story. 

After the copy desk chief checks the copy editor’s work, the text with the headline moves into the printing process.

It’s ugly when any part of that chain of custody breaks down. According to the Columbia Journalism School postmortem on the now-retracted Rolling Stone story, every person failed to do their most essential duty: reporter, assigning editor, managing editor, etc. It was too good a story to quibble over missing facts, dubious assertions, missing sources and bias that was rotten through the Rolling Stone system. 

More serious was the Times refusal to challenge Judith Miller’s reporting about WMD before our invaded Iraq. Stories that challenged her Bush Administration sources were buried or spiked. Miller was queen of Page 1 and the Times was handmaiden to the advocates of undeclared war. 

No longer at the Times, Miller is promoting her book, “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey,” to recover her reputation. It’s no accident that she began her defense in the Wall Street Journal, the Times’ chief rival as a New York or national daily.

Her WSJ guest column said, in part, “There was no shortage of mistakes about Iraq, and I made my share of them. The newsworthy claims of some of my prewar WMD stories were wrong … Before the 2003 invasion, President Bush and other senior officials cited the intelligence community’s incorrect conclusions about Saddam’s WMD capabilities and, on occasion, went beyond them.”

She continued, “My sources were the same counterterrorism, arms-control and Middle East analysts on whom I had relied for my stories about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s growing threat to America — a series published eight months before 9/11 for which the Times staff, including me, won a Pulitzer. In 1996, those same sources helped me to write a book about the dangers of militant Islam long before suicide bombers made the topic fashionable. Their expertise informed articles and another book I co-wrote in 2003 with Times colleagues about the danger of biological terrorism, published right before the deadly anthrax letter attacks.”

At best, Miller was a captive of her sources, so credulous that she apparently didn’t challenge their monolithic conviction about WMD. She also knew what it took to stay on Page 1 of the Times and she produced it. 

But there were other viewpoints from authoritative sources and the Washington Post and McClatchy newspapers found and published them.

The Times review trashed her. It said, in part, “Ms. Miller’s main defense is that the experts she relied upon — intelligence officials, weapons experts, members of the Bush administration and others — were wrong about Mr. Hussein’s weapons. She acknowledges being wrong but not making any mistakes. 

“She quotes herself telling another reporter: ‘If your sources were wrong, you are wrong.’ 

“This is where she gets stuck. Journalists, especially those who have a talent for investigative work, are taught early to write big, to push the story as far as possible. Be careful; nail the facts; be fair, but push hard. Nobody pushed harder than Ms. Miller. In this case, she wound up implicitly pushing for war.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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