By Kellye Coleman
Persistence, a devotion to fairness and a sharpened pencil are essential tools for journalists and storytellers seeking to uncover the truth, according to a panel of local and national journalists participating in a media and politics conference at Elon University.
The panel discussion, titled “Challenges for Journalists,” featured journalists who have used a variety of methods to uncover important truths in local and national spheres and have overcome challenges in seeking the truth.
According to Andrew Curliss, investigative reporter for Raleigh’s News and Observer, the honest participation of key people in a story can be hard to come by. “Usually the people I’m reporting about don’t want my story to be accurate,” Curliss said. “That’s a real challenge.”
This was particularly true while he gathered information for a story about the corrupt practices of former North Carolina governor, Mike Easley, a story that led to a federal investigation.
However, Curliss has found that it is important to interview sources with an open mind, allowing them to tell the story. “It’s not like there’s something written ahead of time, and I just want to plug in a few holes,” he said.
Alex Goldman, producer of WNYC radio show “On the Media,” agrees with Curliss. “The important thing to do as an investigator is to start with a premise and do everything you can to prove that premise wrong,” he said. In his opinion, trying to find support for that premise will inhibit accuracy.
“The important thing to do as an investigator is to start with a premise and do everything you can to prove that premise wrong.” – Alex Goldman
Use a variety of sources
As a computer assisted reporting specialist for Propublica, a non-profit newsroom, Jennifer LaFluer has faced her own set of problems. “Data, just like people, can lie. It can be inconsistent. It can have holes in it,” she said.
One key way to overcome this issue is pulling together sources. “For me, a lot of times getting to the true picture is by analyzing all of the data and having all of the data,” she said.
Goldman agrees. “We have a three-source rule on our show,” he said. “Make sure you use as many sources as you can.”
Public records left private
Pendulum editor Anna Johnson has found simply being a student presents it’s own challenges, particularly when requesting public records. “It can be challenging when you’re not taken seriously,” she said, revealing incidences when she has been people have laughed at her when requesting records.
According to Johnson, knowing the law and what individuals should have access to is key. “It’s important to know that sometimes when people say you can’t have information, that may not always be true,” she said.
Although some records are public, Curliss has found that reporters have to use their judgment:
Despite the varying challenges the panelists have faced when gathering news, all of them agree that fact-checking a story is essential. The members of the panel have unique methods to ensuring a stories facts are accurate.
The News and Observer staff must complete a “pencil check” for the stories they run, which means printing each stroy and checking facts. “Every fact, every paragraph, every quote is to be signed-off by hand,” he said. For a large story, this process could last for two weeks.
For LaFluer, not only is printing and checking by-hand imperative, but also checking sources of data against relevant documents. “Our stories run on our site, but then they also run with NPR, PBS, WNYC, The New York Times, other papers,” LaFluer said. “We want to make sure they’re right before they get there and are involved in the process all along.”
Be Smart News Consumers
The way social media has influenced the way young people consume news has shocked LaFluer. “The number of students that rely on things strictly from a Google search or somebody’s Facebook page is disturbing to me,” LeFluer said. She suggests using sites like Twitter as starting points for further discovery.
Similarly, Goldman relies on multiple, partisan-neutral sources:
For Curliss, paying attention to multiple news sources over time can allow one to consume news that’s consistently accurate.
“One of the things we try to do is to become a credible source of information,” Curliss said. “You know when the News and Observer, The New York Times or whoever it is put something out there, can you trust it or not? Hopefully, over time you know ‘Well, I can trust something from this outfit.'”