2. Verification Fundamentals: Rules to Live By

Written by Steve Buttry

In 1996, I did a project on an American high school girls basketball team that had won the Iowa state championship 25 years earlier. I interviewed all 12 members of the Farragut team, as well as the star and coach of Mediapolis, the team Farragut beat for the championship.

I asked them all how Farragut won the game. They gave different, often vivid, accounts of the same story: Mediapolis star Barb Wischmeier, who was 6 feet tall, scored easily on the shorter Farragut girls early in the game, and Mediapolis took the lead.

The Farragut coach sent Tanya Bopp, who was barely 5 feet, into the game to guard Wischmeier. Bopp drew several charging fouls (some remembered specifically that it was three or four fouls) on the larger girl, who became flustered and less aggressive. Farragut came back to win the game.

I didn’t question these consistent memories in my reporting, but learned almost by accident that they were exaggerated. One of the girls loaned me a video of the game. I watched the whole game, looking for details that would help my story. I wasn’t challenging anyone’s memory, but when I finished the tape, I thought I must have missed something. So I watched it again.

Tiny Tanya Bopp drew only one foul on the larger girl. It did fluster the Mediapolis star and was the turning point of the game, but it happened only once. All those firsthand accounts I had heard were inaccurate, fueled by the emotions (joy or anguish) of an important moment in their lives, and shaped by a legend that grew from the game.

The legend - and the opportunity to honor it by debunking it - gave me a great narrative thread for my article but also taught me a lesson in verification: Don’t trust even honest witnesses. Seek documentation.

Legends are fine, and even fun, for athletes and fans reliving the glory days of a legendary sports team. But journalists, activists or human rights workers must deal with the truth and must be committed to finding and telling the truth, especially in an emergency situation.

Whether we’re assembling the tale of a natural disaster, a breaking news story or a bit of popular lore, storytellers must remember that we hear the product of faulty memory or limited perspective. If telling the truth is our goal, verification must be our standard.

We need to look and listen earnestly to the stories of our sources, watching for opportunities to verify. Does the source have a (new or old) video, photograph, letter or document that can offer verification or detail, or perhaps correct a foggy memory? And when we’re supplied with this material, especially in emergency situations where time is tight, we need to investigate it and apply the fundamentals of verification.

Regardless of the moment and your role in it, the principles of verification are timeless and can be applied to any situation, be it breaking news, a natural disaster or the retelling of a apocryphal tale from a quarter century earlier.

The Essence of Verification

One of journalism’s most treasured clichés, spouted by seasoned editors who ruthlessly slash other clichés from stories, is: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

But the cliché doesn’t tell the journalist, or humanitarian professional, how to check it out. Verification is the essence of journalism, but it also illustrates the difficulty of journalism and the need for high standards: The path to verification can vary with each fact.

So this handbook won’t present journalists, human rights workers and other emergency responders with one-size-fits-all simple steps to verification, but with strategies to check it out - whatever “it” is, and whatever motivation or role you have.

The question at the heart of verification is: “How do you know that?”

Reporters need to ask this question of their sources; editors need to ask it of reporters. Reporters, editors, producers and human rights workers need to ask the question in the third person about sources they can’t ask directly: How do they know that?

Newsroom coach Rosalie Stemer adds a second question that illustrates the multilayered process of verification and the ethic of persistence and resourcefulness that verification demands: How else do you know that?

As we question sources and material, and as colleagues question us, we need to seek multiple sources of verification, multiple paths to the truth. (Or, to finding holes in the data or story before we act on it.)

Verification employs a mix of three factors:

  1. A person’s resourcefulness, persistence, skepticism and skill
  2. Sources’ knowledge, reliability and honesty, and the number, variety and reliability of sources you can find and persuade to talk
  3. Documentation

Technology has changed how we apply all three factors: The 24/7 news cycle and rise of social media and user-generated content require us to gather and report as events unfold, making swift decisions about whether information has been sufficiently verified; digital tools give us new ways to find and reach sources; databases and ubiquitous cellphones with cameras give us massive amounts of documentation to seek and assess. Successful verification results from effective use of technology, as well as from commitment to timeless standards of accuracy.

The need for verification starts with the simple fact that many of our information sources are wrong. They may be lying maliciously or innocently passing along misinformation. They may have faulty memories or lack context or understanding. They may be in harm’s way and unable to provide everything they know, or unable to see the full picture of events as they unfold.

Our job is not to parrot sources and the material they provide, but to challenge them, triangulate what they provide with other credible sources and verify what is true, weeding from our work (before we publish, map or broadcast) what is false or not adequately verified.

Each of the many verification paths that we might take has its flaws: In many cases, and especially in emergency situations, we are increasingly presented with an abundance of official sources and can find firsthand sources, the people who actually saw - or even participated - in the events in question. But those accounts can be flawed.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told reporters in 2006 that 12 of 13 miners trapped underground had been rescued from the Sago mine. What reporter wouldn’t run with that story?

But the governor was wrong. Twelve of the miners died; only one was rescued. The governor relied on second- and thirdhand accounts, and was not challenged on how he knew the miners were alive. We need to question seemingly authoritative sources as aggressively as we challenge any source.

New Tools

Documentation has changed with technology. The video that helped me debunk the legend in 1996 wouldn’t have been available from one of the team members if I’d tried doing that story 15 years earlier (though I still could have watched it by going to the archives of the TV station). And in the years since I used that video for verification, the availability of cellphones and security cameras has increased the amount and importance of video documentation. But the ease of digital video editing raises the importance of skepticism. And, of course, any video catches only part of the story.

Technology has also changed how we find and deal with sources and information. As participants and witnesses to news events share their accounts in words, photos and videos on social media and blogs, journalists can more quickly find and connect with people who saw news unfold both by using digital search tools and other technologies, and by crowdsourcing.

We can use new tools most effectively by employing them with those old questions: How do they know that? How else do they know that?

That old cliché about checking out Mom’s love? I verified the source (the old Chicago City News Bureau) from multiple online sources: the Chicago Tribune, AJR and The New York Times. Even there, though, legend complicates verification. A 1999 Baltimore Sun article by Michael Pakenham said legend attributes the admonition to the bureau’s longtime night city editor, Arnold Dornfeld (as three of the articles linked above do), but “Dornie said it was another longtime editor there, Ed Eulenberg, who actually said it first.”

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