Verification of Factual Assertions

Independent Verification of Factual Assertions


Overview


We journalists place ourselves above all other communicators. We regard other information outlets with disdain and try very hard to set a boundary between them and us. But what exactly distinguishes us from other forms of communication such as public relations or the entertainment business? Is our craft restrained by different rules of conduct? Is our holy grail, the claim for the bare truth, a genuine quest or is it merely a hollow motto masking the shortcomings of our discipline?

What distinguishes us is the discipline of verification—the beating heart of credible journalism operating to serve the public interest. Without it, our claim to the truth is rendered meaningless. This is best illustrated in the old journalist saying, “If your mother told you she loves you, check it out”.

In their famous book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel deconstruct the difference between journalism based on "verification" and that based on "assertion". The journalism of assertion, the authors argue, operates by republishing and interpreting existing materials and commonly-held beliefs, instead of independently discovering and verifying new facts. One way to alleviate the dangers of assertive journalism has been the creation of newsroom-specific guidelines that would help journalists follow a strict verification process.

Relationship with the law


Journalism’s codes of conduct are more like guidelines than actual regulations. The lack of a formal disciplinary apparatus of enforcement, however, is understandable: journalistic techniques vary according to the specific stories they cover, and are therefore just as diverse. Journalists are expected to weigh the different factors in making professional and ethical decisions about a story.

It comes as no surprise then that the relationship between journalism and the law has been a complex and volatile one that has been slow to evolve in most areas. In fact, most of those areas are yet to be decided by common law cases.

For the purposes of the essay, we will take the example of “defamation” to illustrate the journalism-law relationship. Until late last year, the defences available to a journalist facing a libel suit in Canada were (1) to prove the truth of a defamatory statement, (2) to show that the statement was a "fair comment" based on facts, or (3) to claim a "qualified privilege" in reporting the statement (e.g. that the report was a fair and balanced account of a public meeting).

Enter the case of Grant vs. Toronto Star (2009). In making a decision on a libel suit brought against the Toronto Star, the Supreme Court of Canada decided on December 22, 2009 that even if the defamatory statements turn out to be false, the journalist and publisher are at no fault if they prove that they acted diligently in attempting to verify the information. The new defence, dubbed “responsible communication on matters of public interest” (or PIRC), effectively shifted the focus of the litigation from the truth or falsity of the defamatory statements to the diligence of the defendant in verifying them.

In deciding whether the defendant has acted responsibly, the Supreme Court suggested several points of reference to be considered, including the seriousness of the allegation; the public importance of the matter; the urgency of the matter; status and reliability of the source; whether the plaintiff's side of the story was sought and accurately reported; whether the inclusion of the defamatory statement was justifiable; whether the defamatory statement’s public interest lay in the fact that it was made rather than its truth (“reportage”); and any other relevant circumstances.

In principle, the PIRC defence rewards good journalism: journalists are off the defamation hook if they make reasonable efforts to verify an important story. But what constitutes verification?


What to verify


Most daily journalism involves gathering comments and statements from people and quickly assembling them for newspaper or websites, or broadcasting them. It is important, however, to differentiate between comments and statements of fact. Publishing a diversity of comments on a wide range of subjects is what any good media outlet should do. Publishing statements of fact is more problematic, because it is not always obvious whether those statements are true.

That problem is not resolved by presenting different sides of the story, for example—an approach practiced widely and treated lightly by many reporters. In other words, verification of statements of fact is essential even if the story appears to be "objective."

But how often do journalists stop to ask whether the quote they are printing or broadcasting is actually true? Many journalists quoted President George Bush and U.S. administration officials as saying that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. But how many of those reporters bothered to investigate the accuracy of those claims? Hardly any.

Verification, then, should extend to cover all statements of fact. Whether the person quoted is the president of a country or a nursery home worker, if the quote is to be printed as a statement of fact or a basis for the journalist’s factual fabric of the story, it should be verified. If a certain quote is a statement of opinion, this fact should be made clear.


How to verify


Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s judgment provided editors with specific, practical rules that could be used to ensure adequate verification. But journalists have proposed and upheld professional principles of verification long before the Grant case.

Across different media outlets, a journalism of verification meant diligent digging and effort, and fighting laziness, routine shortcuts and sluggishness. Here, we will explore and critique the three steps that are essential to the discipline of verification: ensuring independence, skepticism, and the reliability of sources. We will then venture into controversial areas that pose challenges and dilemmas to journalists who practise adequate verification.

Independence

Independence is essential to the discipline of verification, and should not be open for questions or decisions. But as a concept that is almost always attached to the concept of journalistic verification, it is rarely properly explained. “Independent verification” essentially means that journalists verify the information for the sole purpose of making sure the facts are correct; i.e. they should not be influenced by any ulterior goals or agendas that could cause them to “bend” the integrity of sources to fit a specific scheme. The only agenda should be a black-and-white decision on whether “facts” are indeed facts.

Skepticism

Journalism, like science, loses its credibility if deemed unreliable. The profession should unabashedly cultivate systematic skeptical testing of information in order to preserve its commitment to accuracy. Verifying every fact we receive from a source should become part of our reporting routine. Before the story is written, we should ask these questions:
How do we know this?
What is the assumption behind this sentence?
Why should people believe this?

The first question deals with sources, and prompts us to check their reliability and investigate how they came to know the information they provided. The second prompts a rigorous fact-checking process, because each sentence is taken as a mere assumption. Finally, the third question should yield an unquestionable account of factual statements, e.g. people should believe this sentence because it is the account of an uninvolved eyewitness.

A simpler way to go about skeptical editing is to assume nothing, i.e. treating every single fact as having a potential of error. This technique will establish skepticism as part of journalists’ everyday routine, and leads the newsroom towards a systematic approach to crosschecking documents and sources. Many newsroom have “accuracy checklists” to organize the fact-checking process.

Reliability of Sources

Here we can take cue from the Grant determinants of responsible communication, which include the status and reliability of the source as an issue that goes to the heart of journalistic verification. The ruling states that “some sources of information are more worthy of belief than others. The less trustworthy the source, the greater the need to use other sources to verify the allegations he or she makes. This applies as much to documentary sources as to people”. But how can we determine whether the source is trust-worthy or not?

Journalists should, at all times, seek to verify the source of the information by applying the usual skepticism to the source of unverified information. For example:
    • Who is the source?
    • How is the source likely to know this? What is their ability to obtain the information first hand?
    • What does the source’s past history say about their credibility? Does the source have some record in their social media history of seriousness and reputable behaviour?
    • Where does the source get funding?
    • What are the source’s possible political allegiances?

Journalists should apply judgment in answering these questions. For additional information on the ethical and professional issues that should be considered, refer to the 'verification of the reliability of sources' page.


Verification Dilemmas


Dealing with Urgency


Different organizations may balance speed and accuracy in different ways. 24-hour television news networks, driven by viewership’s instant access and fierce competition, tend to place considerable time pressure on their reporters, which reduces their ability to verify information. The New York Times might print longer, more detailed, less speculative, and more thoroughly verified pieces a day or two later.

That could become problematic because hasty verification could lead to misleading stories or slip into libel. That said, most cases of libel in the past have persecuted defamatory statements in stories that are more on the investigative side than the ones produced by the grind of daily, deadline-driven journalism. However, all journalism is driven by a deadline – whether it’s an hour or five months. The journalist's job is to gather and assemble as much information as possible before the specified deadline. Often the deadline defines how thorough a job can be done.

The 'balancing urgency with accuracy' page defines the concepts of urgency and accuracy from a journalistic perspective, and offers an interesting case study on the dilemma of balancing the two.

From the law’s point of view, the Grant ruling explicitly stated that the “requirement to verify accuracy should not unduly hamstring the timely reporting of important news. But nor should a journalist’s (or blogger’s) desire to get a 'scoop' provide an excuse for irresponsible reporting of defamatory allegations”. The question, the judgment continues, is whether the public’s need to know required the defendant to publish when it did. As with the other factors, this is considered in light of what the defendant knew or ought to have known at the time of publication. If a reasonable delay could have assisted the defendant in finding out the truth and correcting any defamatory falsity without compromising the story’s timeliness, this factor will weigh in the plaintiff’s favour.

Logic of Proportionality


To pick up on our last point, daily journalism would be paralyzed if we waited to verify every bit of information before reporting it. We are entitled to know what the U.S. president, or the Canadian prime minister, or the head of the autoworkers union is saying about important issues. If we are naming them, we can report what they say.

But this does not clear us of the responsibility to test the accuracy of their statements. Otherwise journalists simply become megaphones for anyone with the means to disseminate a message. After the quotes have been published and the clips broadcast, every newspaper or media outlet should examine and challenge the statements, and try to determine whether or not they are true. This is often the key difference between daily journalism and investigative work. Both types of journalism are necessary -- one to inform us about what is happening and what people are saying, and the second to enlighten us about where the truth lies.

Having said that, we also need to evaluate the kind of information that we report and how high the stakes are in reporting it. In the Grant ruling, the seriousness and importance of the allegation top of the list of points to be considered in evaluating responsible communication. It is therefore only logical to follow a rule of proportionality when dealing with statements that could potentially be defamatory.

As described by the ruling, “the logic of proportionality dictates that the degree of diligence required in verifying the allegation should increase in proportion to the seriousness of its potential effects on the person defamed. This factor recognizes that not all defamatory imputations carry equal weight. The defamatory “sting” of a statement can range from a passing irritant to a blow that devastates the target’s reputation and career”.

Anonymous sources


This is an issue that inevitably springs up when discussing verification of information. What is a journalist supposed to do when faced with sources who want to remain confidential?

Here, journalists should apply even more diligence at verifying the information, for obvious reasons: information provided by an anonymous source is risky because the source does not fear repercussions. That in turn could mean misleading journalists with false information that serves the source’s hidden agenda.

As dependence on anonymous sources for important public information has grown, journalists have begun trying to develop rules to assure themselves and their audiences that they are maintaining independence. For example, former executive editor of the New York Times Joe Lelyveld required his staff to ask themselves two questions before using an anonymous source:

- How much direct knowledge does the anonymous source have of the event?
- What, if any, motive might the source have for misleading us, gliding the lily, or hiding important facts that might alter our impression of the information?

Satisfied by the answers? Proceed. But share with the audience information to suggest how the source was in a position to know the published information (“a source who has seen the document”, for example) and what special interest the source may have.

Another possible approach is to not use anonymous sources altogether. The founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth, banned anonymous sources in his newspaper. This is an excerpt from an article he wrote on the newspaper’s website:

“It's so simple. Most anonymous sources often tell more than they know. Reporters who are allowed to use such sources sometimes write more than they hear. Editors too often let them get away with it. Result: Fiction gets mixed with fact.

The only way to win the war against this evil is for journalists at all levels to ban all anonymous sources.

Until or unless we do, the public won't trust us, and we put the First Amendment in jeopardy.”

Given that the journalists’ confidentiality agreements with their sources is still a grey area in the Canadian law, this approach sounds attractive and would spare journalists a major ethical dilemma in the courtroom. But of course, like all journalism work, there is no black and white. Using anonymous sources is not an absolute. Anyone practising journalism should be able to borrow and create his or her own. The important idea is that the journalist would apply some conscious judgment in his or her personal methodology of verification.


Last Word


The Responsible Communication in matters of Public Interest defence (PIRC) provides a valuable and effective methodology that enriches the discipline of verification. In fact the judgment sets novel standards that guide journalists through the fact-checking process.

If you are a starting reporter, you could develop your sense of skepticism through following the PIRC checklist. If you are a practising journalist, perhaps an important question to ask yourself now is, would my verification methodology stand the PIRC test? If you think there are reasonable grounds to answer that question in the negative, then you, the journalist, will have to recreate a more skeptical reporting methodology.


Bibliography



Foreman, Gene. The Ethical Journalist. Hong Kong : Wiley-Blackwell, 2009


Kovach, Bill; Rosenstiel, Tom. The Elements of Journalism. New York : Three Rivers Press, 2001


White, Susan. Be a Freelance Writer. West Sussex : Global Media, 2007


Callahan, Sidney. New Challenges of Globalization for Journalism. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol.18, no.2, 2003


Kovach, Bill. Toward a New Journalism with Verification. Nieman Reports, vol.60, no.4, 2006


Websites

“Guidelines For Re-Tweeting or Re-Posting Information Found In Social Media” by the Social Media panel of the Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists. (2010). Retrieved on October 24, 2010 from the “J-Source” (Canadian Journalism Project) website:
http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=5164


Jobb, Dean. The Media March Off to Court. (2009). Retrieved October 24, 2010 from the “J-Source” website:
http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=4218

Lacey, Dana. The New Meaning of Objectivity. (2010). Retrieved on October 24,2010 from the “J-Source” website:
http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=5578

Neuharth, Al. Evil of journalism: Anonymous sources. (2004). Retrieved on October 24, 2010 from the USA Today website:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/columnist/neuharth/2004-01-16-neuharth_x.htm


Rosner, Cecil. The higher the stakes, the more verification is required. (2009). Retrieved on October 24, 2010 from the “J-Source” website:
http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/submitcomment.php?id=4020&PHPSESSID=7fb999c5e835fa829da001d3ccbc9b05





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