The Hierarchy of Accuracy
The Hierarchy of Accuracy
A cautious editor, through his dedication to accuracy, spared the New York Times a scandal. He also brought a turning point to Times coverage of “Lewinsky case”. Further on, he made his daily more cautious and gave the authors of Project for Excellence in Journalism the idea for an article on basic classification of information accuracy
Some facts, quotes, assertions and color are more reliable than others.
The stuff that comes closest to an eyewitness is better than that which is second hand.
The stuff that you know for yourself is better than the stuff someone else supposedly checked out-or did they?
This idea was crystallized for us in some ways by Mike Oreskes when he was Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times. He said that as he looked back at the lessons of the Lewinsky scandal for the New York Times, he thought the most important was, "Do Your Own Work."
Beware of the idea that you have to do a story "Because it is out there." Floating around.
In a sense, Mike is suggesting a hierarchy of verification. And the top of that is the stuff you have verified yourself-from sources with direct knowledge and they are better than sources who do not have direct knowledge.
The Times, as an example, had the Third Part Witness story in the Lewinsky scandal. It was slated to go. The paper was laid out. It was 6 p.m. Early edition was getting close.
And the reporters who had worked the story, one of whom was John Broder, walked into Oreskes office and said, Mike, we have been thinking this through, and we realized our sources are second hand. They are not the people who saw the president and Lewinsky together. At best they are people who talked to them, and maybe they are ones who talked to them. We really wonder if that is good enough to call the president a liar.
Oreskes called New York and said he thought they should hold the story. New York argued with him. The editors said you know this story is going to get out. And Mike held firm, under significant pressure.
It was a pivotal moment. Not only was the third party witness story wrong. But it was a turning point in the Times' coverage. They were grateful for Oreskes decision, and thereafter stuck more closely to what The Times could verify for itself with first hand sources.
If you want to take this even further, there is a hierarchy of what can be proved in a more general sense.
You can argue that journalism is first concerned with the more external world. The president said these words. The car came from this direction and hit the other car here.
Here journalism is on pretty solid ground.
The more interior world, such as motive, why did the president say these words, why did the government choose this policy, or why does Osama Bin Laden hate America, is necessarily more speculative.
Source – Journalism.org: http://www.journalism.org/