Getting to the 'Real Truth'

A tenet of ethical reporting is to verify information not personally known to the reporter. That's true even if -- especially if -- a public official, a public figure or a syndicated columnist makes a claim of public concern.

Aug 10, 2008 at 2:06 pm

A tenet of ethical reporting is to verify information not personally known to the reporter. That's true even if — especially if — a public official, a public figure or a syndicated columnist makes a claim of public concern.

Sometimes the only people likely to know what's going on are the sole source(s) for the information. That's often the case when a passenger plane crashes in some remote place and all we have is what the airline says.

That's also why you sometimes see or hear that someone with authority "did not return telephone calls or emails asking for confirmation...." Or, in the case of the hundreds of Americans sickened with salmonella, if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it's probably contaminated tomatoes, that's what we report. No one knows better.

Failures to try to verify can embarrass reporters as well as the men and women we quote.

Think of credulous national and local figures who claimed that Chinese were drilling for oil off the Florida coast in collaboration with Castro. Whether Rep. Jean Schmidt or columnist George Will, they went public without bothering to verify an assertion that screamed for further attention.

They were wrong. It wasn't true.

My issue is with news media that repeated their assertions without checking further. Were it true, it would have been a huge story. Granted, it was Soviet missiles in Cuba, but Chinese and Cubans drilling for oil off our coast?

Why didn't the White House or Florida governor screamed "national security?" How could it happen without anti-Castro Cubans in Florida crying bloody murder?

Either it didn't happen or there was such a monstrous conspiracy that it could only have been hatched on a grassy knoll.

And the news media were asleep. Again. Repeat what Schmidt said. Print what Will wrote. If a Democrat were as incurious, report it. Stenography.

An earlier, unresolved failure to verify involves TV images of a Palestinian child fatally shot by as he huddled with his father during a Gaza firefight in 2000. Veteran reporter Charles Enderlin and his network, France 2 TV, blamed Israeli soldiers.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in the Weekly Standard says that when skeptics asked how anyone knew Israelis fired the fatal shots, Enderlin and France 2 TV denied the possibility of error. Moutet says Enderlin and France 2 also resisted efforts to show the entire 27-minute video tape and denied the possibility of any error even though Enderlin didn't see the shooting and relied on what the videographer told him.

Finally, according to Moutet, the tape has been shown. She says it shows Palestinians staging various scenes for the Palestinian freelance videographer who provided the genuine killing images.

"All of those present at the screening ... ended up in full agreement that it was impossible to determine where the bullets had come from but that it was highly unlikely that they could have come from the Israeli garrison," she wrote. "More crucially, (critics) caught Enderlin lying.... There was no 'unbearable agony' of the child anywhere on the tape, they wrote. It wasn't edited out, it simply did not exist."

Had Enderlin viewed the entire tape, it would not have verified the videographer's attribution of blame for the shooting death. Rather, it would have raised questions about the authenticity of every image in the 27-minute tape. If France 2 TV reviewed the tape, it should have raised the same doubts.

In short, the evidence would not have verified the "facts" offered by the videographer, reporter and network.

Another egregious example involves the recent "discovery" of a remote Amazonian tribe. You probably know the photo: tribesmen pointing spears or arrows at the photographer's low-flying plane.

Peter Beaumont, the London Observer's foreign affairs editor, tipped me to the credulous reporting. He says "that far from being unknown, the tribe's existence has been noted since 1910 and the mission to photograph them was undertaken in order to prove that 'uncontacted' tribes still existed in an area endangered by the menace of the logging industry."

Beaumont credits Al Jazeera English for blowing the whistle. Al Jazeera initially called called the Indians "one of the world's last uncontacted tribes."

Sensing further possibilities, Al Jazeera reporter Gabriel Elizondo interviewed expedition leader José Carlos Meirelles in a remote corner of northwest Brazil. Meirelles is a sertanista, a specialist who seeks such isolated groups and works to protect them from encroaching loggers, miners, ethno-botanists, missionaries and other representatives of civilization.

"When we think we might have found an isolated tribe, a sertanista like me walks in the forest for two or three years to gather evidence and we mark it in our GPS [global positioning system]," Meirelles told Al Jazeera. "We then map the territory the Indians occupy, and we draw that protected territory without making contact with them. And finally we set up a small outpost where we can monitor their protection."

Al Jazeera continues: To find the tribe, Meirelles had dozens of new GPS coordinates and the Brazilian National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and the Brazilian state of Acre — where the tribe had been spotted — provided him an aircraft, pilot and two photographers.

"I had years of GPS coordinates and a friend of mine sent me some Google Earth coordinates and maps that showed a strange clearing in the middle of the forest and asked me what that was," Meirelles said. "I saw the coordinates and realized that it was close to the area I had been exploring ... so I needed to fly over it."

Meirelles flew over the border region with Peru and saw huts that belonged to isolated tribes but saw no people. "When the women hear the plane above, they run into the forest, thinking it's a big bird," he said. "This is such a remote area, planes don't fly over it."

The pictures of the huts and indigenous agricultural areas were valuable evidence that the communities were growing, according to Meirelles, and that the policy of no contact was working. Meirelles finally spotted a large community and numerous women running into the forest with their children. He flew back over the exact area later, knowing the men would be back from hunting, Al Jazeera continued.

Upon a second flyover, he captured the iconic images of red-painted tribesmen throwing spears at the aircraft were taken.

"When I saw them painted red, I was satisfied, I was happy," he said. "Because painted red means they are ready for war, which to me say they are happy and healthy defending their territory."

Meirelles says he released the pictures and video as powerful and indisputable evidence to those who say isolated tribes no longer exist.

"This region of Brazil (the Amazon) probably has the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the world," he said, adding that Brazil has 69 references to isolated tribes with little to no contact with the outside world — 22 of which have been confirmed.

Curmudgeon Notes

• With scores of newspaper journalists being bought out and fired each month, there is no way we'll ever again get the amount of news to which we've been accustomed. (See info on last week's announcement of staff cuts at The Enquirer here.)

There is a limit to "doing more with less." If you're not watching journalism blogs, you might have missed the gruesome bloodletting at some of the nation's best papers and staff reductions almost everywhere. At best, open positions are unfilled to avoid layoffs.

Survivors are grateful but often dispirited. They're asked to fill pages with less substance, shoot digital photos and video and post on the Internet as well as writing for the paper.

In the short term, it's a godsend to people doing public relations and editors and publishers who always feared that too much depth might alienate or anger people they don't want to alienate or anger. Whether diminished papers will be authoritative vehicles for public relations messages or thin gruel is unlikely in the long term.

In too many pages, it seems that anything that isn't obscene, libelous or offensive gets in. It's worse on the Internet as "reader content" replaces journalism and stupidly misnamed "citizen journalists" begin to think they are the real thing.

• Sure, there are some important campaign stories, but too many recall playground name-calling. One way to avoid campaign news fatigue is to turn to BBC World Service and London and other foreign, English-language dailies with their selective, focused coverage and freedom to ignore bullshit stories that American editors use rather than risk being accused of partisanship.

BBC World Service has a good Web site with tightly written stories as well as access to its broadcasts online. Dailies include Guardian and Independent (liberal), Telegraph (conservative) and Times (whatever Rupert Murdoch concludes serves his interests). Other sites include France 24 and Al Jazeera English with their obvious perspectives.

Enquirer letters to the editor too often accuse the paper of bias based on the display of one story. Dumb. If anything, those letters reveal reader ignorance of how news judgments are reached.

CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: [email protected]