Journalism distinguishes itself from other writing through the concept of verification. The “discipline of verification,” a term coined by Bill Kovich and Tom Rosentiel, authors of The Elements of Journalism, allows journalism to rise to the level of believability that few other forms of information presentation have.
In short, it is making sure you are right in what you say. It is making sure you are accurate in every detail of what you write.
And why is it so important?
Journalists and news organizations consistently try to develop a reputation for credibility. They want what they say to be believed by the reader or listener, whether the news consumer agrees with it or not. They reason that they can do this only by making extra and sometimes extraordinary efforts to verify the information they present to the consumer. Over time, they think, the consumers will come to trust them.
This all may sound logical and straightforward, and in many ways it is. If you develop a reputation for honesty among your friends, you will be believed when you tell them something.
But in the process of journalism – when reporters are working on several stories at once and facing daily deadline pressures – verifying information so that it rises to the standards of the profession is a difficult and frustrating task.
Every reporter develops ways to verify information efficiently, but there are some general principles and techniques that all reporters use.
First all reporters verify basic information such as the spelling of names, the exact wording of titles, making sure direct quotations are exactly the words that were spoken, and other basic tenets. The verification usually is done by the reporter asking the source.
Yes, you should always ask a source how to spell his or her name. Always. It is not insulting or irritating to do so. Rather, it shows that you are trying to be careful. Misspelling someone’s name is a serious error and WILL insult a source and demonstrate that you do not have the discipline to be a journalist.
You should also ask the source his or her job title if that is relevant to the story. In fact, any information that you plan to use about the source, you should verify with the source. And if you doubt what the source has told you, you should try to find that information from an independent source.
Notice that in most straight news reports, most of the information in the report is attributed to some source. Attribution is a part of the writing style of the journalist, and we will say much more about it in the next section. There are ways to properly attribute information that do not intrude into the writing, and the journalist must learn these techniques.
In this section, however, our focus is on reporting and some of the ways that reporters verify information.
One common technique is one that we have already alluded to: finding the same information from two independent sources. If two people who haven’t had contact with each other are telling you the same thing, chances are that information is more believable. Having multiple sources does not always ensure that the information is correct, but it is a step in the right direction.
Another technique to evaluate the source of the information, not just the information itself. Does the source have some special knowledge? Is the source in a position to know the information that the reporter needs? Finding the best sources of information and judging the credibility of the source is one of the major jobs of the reporter.
Evaluating the information itself is a natural part of the verification process. How likely and logical is the information? Does what the source say make sense? Some reporters use the expression “smell test” for information. Does information pass the “small test”; that is, does it seem right on its face or is there something amiss or askew that needs to be questioned or checked out?
Vital to this process is being able to think logically and analytically. Is one thing related to another? Is something caused by something else? A reporter is constantly putting information to these tests.
Another word for this is skepticism, a personal attribute that we discussed in Section 1 <link>. Reporters are skeptical of what they read, hear and see. They are always on a quest to “check it out.”
Also vital to this process is the accumulated knowledge that reporters carry in their heads. Reporters should know as much about as many things as possible. They should read widely. They should talk with interest to many people. They should learn to listen actively and ask questions that will elicit information from people. And they should try to keep information in their heads so that they can be more efficient in the process of verification.
(The process of knowledge accumulation begins early in life and becomes part of the intellectual make-up of reporters. If you have not begun this process in earnest, now is the time to start. Even if you don’t consider yourself a particularly “good” student, you can make up you mind to gather as much information and remember as much of it as possible. You can, in fact, make yourself smart.)
In addition to a wide range of general knowledge, reporters develop specialties in topics that are of interest to them. These topics can include anything – music, sports, video games, cars, science, literature and poetry, or any number of other subjects. As a middle or high school student, it’s not too early think about what specialties you might want to develop. The decisions that you make at this point are not ones that you are stuck with. You can always change your mind and go on to other things that might catch your interest. The important thing is to start doing this now.
Finally, those reporters who work in traditional news organizations find that they have a partner in the process of verification. That partner is the editor (and sometimes several editors). We will discuss the role of the editor later sections of Digital Journalism. Editors raise questions about the information the reporter has. They suggest ways information can be verified. They bring their accumulated knowledge and experience to the process. They set the standards of information verification for the next organization.