Image of puppets arguing

For a time in the early 1990s, I wrote narrative journalism for a business magazine. One of my better efforts recounted the fight for control of an investment bank. Someone would become the bank’s next CEO and several smart, ambitious people wanted the job. Dueling factions within the company wanted their man — apparently no women were under consideration — to get the job. I approached about 25 executives for interviews and because everyone wanted his or her version of events represented, only two turned me down. The story was complex, with copious detail that required stringent accuracy and contending versions of events that I had to weigh, corroborate and carefully frame. I spent so much time at the bank’s headquarters, one morning I walked in and the receptionist handed me my messages.

The issue with my story on the cover hit the newsstands (we still had those in 1991) and I waited. Not for long. A day or two after publication, the magazine’s receptionist let me know I had a call from the bank’s lead counsel, who had been the primary ally of one of the contenders who had lost. Here we go, I thought. I took the call and he didn’t bother with hello. He just said, “I don’t know how you did it, but you got it exactly right.”

I was pretty pleased with myself, and in the coming days received more affirmation from some of the main players. But from time to time I’ve reflected on the experience and wondered: Did I get it exactly right? And even if I did, what did that mean? That I had told the true story or just accurately recounted what 23 people told me? How would I know? Especially important in our profession, how do we know what we know?

That last question is heavy enough to merit its own -ology: epistemology.  I’ll not be digging that deep. But I do want to argue that if we stop once we’re satisfied that our quotes are accurate, our numbers add up and our citations are correct, we’ve stopped short. To be conscientious about accuracy is necessary —but it’s not the whole game. Accurate reporting is information, and the world’s already drowning in that. What’s essential is knowledge. That changes our primary question from Am I right? to What do I know? And whenever possible, we want to write not just what we’ve been told, but what we know.

The pitfalls of ‘he/she said’ reporting

Ponder for a moment how we report. We take notes on what we see and hear. We interview people about what they saw and heard. We interview people about what they having seen and heard. We pore over documents. We slog through social media posts. We analyze photos and videos. Maybe we read books. We review past reporting from what used to be called the morgue. Then, having convinced ourselves that now we know the story, we write it.

But under pressure of a deadline and our own ambitions, it’s all too easy to gloss over how we know this, that and the other. We want to make sense; we want to be the people with the explanations. Our egos do not want to admit that we may not know as much as we think we do, and emotion leads us to prefer certain versions of what is known. This is not a new problem. In the 5th century BCE, Thucydides noted in “The History of the Peloponnesian War:”

 I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else heard of them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eyewitnesses gave different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other, or else from imperfect memories.

Smart guy, Thucydides.

Reporting without judicious skepticism about what we’ve seen, heard, read and been told sets us up to write stories full of accurate reporting but not much accounting for that knowledge. “The working class is fed up with immigration.” How do you know? “The light from this galaxy took 13.6 billion years to get here.” How do you know? “Never standing up from your desk is an invitation to a heart attack.” How do you know? From 2016, “Trump has no chance.” How do you know?

It’s not that reporters don’t ask those questions; it’s that we don’t ask them often enough and keep asking until we get an answer. We don’t question conventional wisdom and sanction authority. (Never underestimate the allure of embracing the safety of conventional wisdom.) And we don’t question our own perceptions and assumptions. How we know what we know?

Cognitive bias and comfort in company

The pitfalls are everywhere. There’s an old joke about economists: Convene four of them in a meeting and in no time you’ll have seven opinions about the economy. Ask a cop or trial attorney about eyewitness testimony and they’ll say something similar. No matter how smart, alert and well-meaning we may be, we all miss things that were right in front of us, misperceive some of what we didn’t miss and filter everything through our biases, state of mind and sensory shortcomings. As Stacy Morford wrote in an essay published by The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization that boasts of itself “academic rigor, journalistic flair:”

Not only are we in the grip of a staggeringly complex array of cognitive biases and dispositions, but we are generally ignorant of their role in our thinking and decision-making.

That’s true for everything we witness as journalists, and everything witnessed by the people we interview. (Consider a close play in a football game. Every replay camera angle shows something different. Every official and player on the field saw something different, as did every spectator in the stadium and every TV viewer at home.)

This perceptual problem is compounded by our reliance on human memory. Most of the time, reporters are asking about events that took place an hour ago, a month ago, four years ago. The consensus among neuroscientists is that when I recalled my exemplary business journalism at the top of this essay, my brain did not extract unaltered details from a secure neuronal database; no, my brain sampled my memory and then reconstructed the story. Apparently, this happens every time I remember something, whether it’s from 30 years ago or this morning. Memory isn’t just fallible; it’s creative every time it’s tapped. You see the problem.

So how fortunate we are to have documentation. Except…do we know how all that documented fact was assembled? Do we know who is the author of the documents and the context and the sources of information and the pressure exerted to produce a desired paper record? Do we know how to read the document? Investigative reporters are familiar with the summary trick: A supposedly disinterested, neutral committee probes some alleged malfeasance and issues a 349-page report that begins with a seven-paragraph executive summary that says Yes, we found some things that were amiss, but really, nothing all that serious. Then a diligent reporter combs the other 348 pages and finds serious problems that the committee was reluctant to disclose. A story doesn’t become true, doesn’t become knowledge, just because someone wrote it down.

More problems arise when our documentation consists mostly of previous reporting. We mine that work for context and backstory and details that we’re grateful we don’t have to look up ourselves because we’re running out of time and hey, that’s a lot of work. This is essential considering the fast pace of most journalism but it introduces new ways to be wrong. Statements misunderstood by reporters, paraphrases that misconstrued what a source meant, incorrect numbers, dubious comparisons, misplaced significance — through repetition all of that becomes part of the record. It may not be what is true but it becomes what is known. I once interviewed a pair of academics whose specialty was the misuse of statistics and data by journalists. They gave me a succinct summary of what they’d observed about the press:

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.”

For years I worked in Cincinnati, Ohio, and sometime in the 1980s I wrote a long magazine piece about the city manager, who was employed by City Council to be the equivalent of the city’s COO. He was under a lot of pressure and rumored to be in danger of being fired. No one had accused him of incompetence and there was not one whiff of scandal. Instead, there was this vague but pervasive notion that he was not the right guy for the job, a notion usually articulated as “He has a problem with the neighborhoods.” Sure enough, as I reported the story, members of the council and other city officials, one after another, told me the city manager had a problem with the neighborhoods. I was uneasy with the vagueness of it all, so I did the most basic thing a reporter can do: I picked up the phone. The city had 48 officially designated neighborhoods, each with a neighborhood council and an individual who served as a liaison with City Hall. I called every one of them. Only two said they were unhappy with the manager. One, a sharp-tongued gentleman who said, “I think his attitude is rotten,” conceded that he’d never invited him to a neighborhood meeting or function, never even reached out for a conversation. I reported in my piece that 46 of 48 neighborhoods had no issue with the city manager. Then for months afterward, I read more stories in the daily press that cited his problem with the neighborhoods.

The discipline of verification

What to do? As journalists we cannot work (and as humans we cannot live, or at least live well) without belief in and respect for facts and expertise. None of us can do without knowledge. But if journalists are to contribute to knowledge — and I think we should — we have to ask of everyone, especially ourselves, “How do you know?” It’s not enough to fact-check our stories. We must know-check our facts.

Bertrand Russell wrote, “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Knowledge never arrives fully formed and eternal. It accretes slowly and undergoes constant review and revision. At one time everyone knew the sun orbited Earth and kings ruled by divine right. The most skilled, careful and honest reporter gets it right most of the time, but not all the time. We correct what we got wrong and keep working because, as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel observed in “The Elements of Journalism:”

In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.

I remember an interview I read with the Grateful Dead’s bassist, Phil Lesh. He was asked about all the wild stories that have always followed the band and made up its lore. Lesh wryly observed, “All the stories are true, and more of them there are the truer they get.”

Nice kicker, don’t you think? I have hunted for the source of that quote, which I’m sure was an article in Rolling Stone, and never been able to find it. I’ve never even found it paraphrased. But I’m sure I remember it accurately. Trust me, I know what I know.

Further Reading