The most important yet the most difficult part of journalism

Maybe this is because I’ve spent most of my journalistic career so far verifying facts, but I think that verification is both the most important and most difficult part of journalism.

It’s the most important because having facts correct is, obviously, crucial to telling a story, and it’s where much of a media outlet’s credibility comes from. We all saw what happened on CNN during the Sandy Hook coverage, when Susan Candiotti failed to confirm the name of the suspect with state police. If she had waited a bit longer or gotten confirmation, then CNN might have gotten the story right, and people might have a better view of CNN. Same with the incorrect Supreme Court health care reform decision that CNN and Fox News reported.

It’s the most difficult because not everyone seems to have the same idea of what “verification” means, or even what fully verifying something would look like. It’s also time-consuming and a job that some assume falls mostly to the copy editors. (It drives me crazy when I read a story with several names misspelled; at that point, it doesn’t seem like a one-time oversight.)

Data journalism also has made verification a whole different ball game. Although it does seem to bring a “scientific spirit” to journalism that Walter Lippmann brought up, journalists have to understand the methodology of data collection and how to put those results into context, which can be confusing but is crucial to providing accurate information.

On the copy desk last semester, I saw a lot of out-of-context data brought to us. One infographic in particular stands out; it took about an hour and a half to sort out. The infographics artist was trying to give numbers for some city government story, but the information he pulled was collected from multiple sources — and from multiple years. As I did some research, I realized that the artist was essentially comparing apples to oranges to try to prove a point. When the news editor and I talked with that person about data collection and sourcing, it took a while for him to understand; no one had ever told him the danger of pulling that information from all different sources, and it wasn’t something the teaching assistants pointed out when they did the first edit. It solidified for me the importance of sourcing and context — and the importance of being skeptical and verifying everything — when dealing with data.

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