Surreal Moments in Journalism – Gotcha trumps substance

A few weeks ago I think a journalism class at Ryerson had a term paper due about why main stream media has such a hard time engaging with social media. I say this since I think at least three different students from the University interview me on the subject. At the beginning of each interview they each told me that their piece might get published in the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

I really enjoyed my conversation with each of them – it is always great to have people ask you smart questions as it challenges you to think and rethink these issues. What I did find bizarre however was what happened next.

The other day a fact checker call me from Ryerson’s school of journalism.

She was nice and friendly and wanted to confirm that I had said certain things. Her questions were fairly vague and I was getting frustrated since I prefer not to be vague (When I’m getting quoted) and so was trying to tell her what I thought my precise language would have been (hey it’d been two or three 45 minute conversations several weeks early…). Finally, I just asked: “Can you just tell what the quote is?”

To which she responded: “No.”

I’m sure journalism students everywhere are about to jump on me… but I’ll confess I was a little surprised and, frankly, disappointed.

This isn’t some political scandal where if I contradict myself there is possibly evidence of some larger cover up. I’d been interviewed as a “subject matter expert” (we can debate the dubiousness of that title – I’m definitely open to challenge on that…) and so one would think that the goal would be to get a quote from me that explained, in the most lucid and helpful manner, the essence of my perspective or the issue I was raising. Substance and clarity would, I thought, have been the goal.

Apparently not.

Who knows what the quote is… (I think it relates to the fact that I believe many Canadian newspaper columnists actually hold their audience in contempt – they don’t actually want to engage with them – something I think is their Achilles heels and that distinguishes a new generation of columnists who are growing up blogging) but the process suggests me that what is really interesting to the review is being able to run with a quote I may or may not have said, because someone decided its juicy. Okay. But understand that this isn’t about getting closer to some understanding of the subject matter anymore, this is about getting a juicy quote.

So, I’ll confess this is all my fault. Lesson learned. I’ll be sure to explicitly stay off the record with journalism students from Ryerson call and will carefully construct any statement I fear might be on the record. Maybe the quotes great! But maybe not. I guess we’ll find out soon…

13 thoughts on “Surreal Moments in Journalism – Gotcha trumps substance

  1. @TariqPiracha

    This makes me think about the argument between traditional encyclopedias and wikipedia. With wikipedia, you can see the discussion that led up to the conclusion on the page. With encyclopedias, you don't know where the information comes from, who made the argument, or even what that argument was. This may be another way in which traditional journalism is becoming more and more irrelevant as people increasingly come to expect more transparency and openness in the information that they seek. With a blog, we can all see, and take part in the conversation. You, as the blogger, have an opportunity to qualify your position, adjust your position, or defend your position as the conversation continues. We, as your readers and commenters, have an opportunity to contribute, to adjust our own positions. In this instance with Ryerson, the transparency isn't there, and the way that they are doing their fact-checking, as “gotcha journalism”, also takes an adversarial position.Unfortunate. For us. And for journalism.

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  2. meznor

    That's pretty sneaky journalism, for sure, and not quite ethical if you ask me. If she were fact checking, but couldn't tell you the fact she was checking, how were you supposed to provide an accurate response? How can she fairly represent your opinon about something when you don't even know the broader question she was really revisiting? Stupid. I wouldn't worry too much about it, because you do have social media tools like this blog to correct any misconceptions she may try to provoke with her dubious interviewing methods. And she'll come off as the sleezy “gotcha” journalist in the process.

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  3. Magdalena Georgieva

    Reading back someone's quote for fact-checking purposes sounds great to me. That's what I prefer to do and encourage my writers to do. It is not like you are sending your source the entire story. It is a quote taken out of context–so it is either true or not. If it's not true then you'd better not publish it. Since this was almost like a group exercise for Ryerson's school of journalism, using recorders might have been their smartest approach.

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  4. kferaday

    That is just bizarre. Hopefully this is not what they're teaching at journalism school — that is unless all future journalism is going to be shaped in the mould of Fox or newsotainment shows, in which case I completely understand. Maybe having a clairvoyant on retainer during these interviews would help.

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  5. Jeremy Keehn

    David, as students they're probably just adhering as tightly as possible to the letter of fact-checking law. From Ryerson professor and Canadian copy-editing and fact-checking guru Cynthia Brouse's book “After the Fact: A Guide to Fact-Checking for Magazines and Other Media”: “The general rule on quotations is: Don't check them, check the facts contained within. When sources hear their words read back to them, they may dislike how baldly they have made their point.”(In my experience, this is quite true: sources very often try to change a statement once they hear what they've actually said, even when the statement was recorded.)Brouse goes on, though, to write: “Sometimes the only way to check the facts in a quote is to read at least some of it back to the source, verbatim. But paraphrase where possible, avoiding emotional or colourful language; if the source asks you to read back a quote, tell him you're only allowed to check facts.”In a case like yours, where expert commentary is being provided, and the language is unlikely to be (e.g.) larded with emotion, the checker might have a little more license to read the quote back to you. But where experienced checkers might either be better at paraphrasing (i.e., less vague), or might know when it's okay to read the words directly, students are just finding their way, and so are going to stick with the rules as closely as possible. That's one of the things you just have to take into account when you grant an interview to a student journal. The fact that they're checking at all is, to my mind, a big step up from most publications.Hope this helps.

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  6. David Eaves

    Jeremy – super helpful comment. I do get the sense that, as a student, she probably felt less able to move away from whatever guidelines they had (indeed, I think they felt a little paralyzed by the guidelines).It does raise a more interesting point. I find the quote your referenced fascinating: “The general rule on quotations is: Don't check them, check the facts contained within. When sources hear their words read back to them, they may dislike how baldly they have made their point.”Why shouldn't a source be allowed to make their point more clearly, or with more tact? It is also worth assessing whether this model of journalism is sustainable. This approach was made possible because journalists had access to distribution channel (e.g. only they could get the article in print or on TV) and so the subject had to choose between getting their message out imperfectly, or not at all. With the internet and social media that calculus changes, there are far more ways to distribute ones message (more websites and channels) and one can more easily do it oneself. It could be that there will be fewer and fewer journalists who will continue to have the leverage to enforce this approach. Lots of food for thought here…

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  7. Jeremy Keehn

    On your question David, I suppose it depends on context. If the quote is set in a particular time and place, for example, then to alter it would be to rewrite history. And I would argue that if someone was feeling something at a particular time they were quoted, then to alter the quote simply to make it more tactful would be to alter an element of truth in the statement.That said, Brouse's manual does incorporate limited flexibility in cases where the facts of the quote have since changed, and I'm fairly certain she speaks generally to the question of ensuring that quotes take context into account. As for sources' other options in the million-media multiverse, lots of food for thought there for sure, but we'll have to reserve it for debate sometime over a beer.

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  8. David Ebner

    Keehn pretty much says what I was mulling to type. I would add, basically to second the notion, that the simple fact-checking is occurring is valuable. The process, especially on first experience, is surreal, it is true, but it is valuable and relatively rare even in mainstream journalism. Also, given it was a student, it's not going to be a perfect experience. In sum, fact checking is not at all about gotcha journalism, it is all about substance, getting things right, going back to sources, ensuring details are correct. On this:Keehn: When sources hear their words read back to them, they may dislike how baldly they have made their point.”Eaves: Why shouldn't a source be allowed to make their point more clearly, or with more tact? The real issue is in, say, a profile of a prominent politician or business person, X source says Y, Z and A about the person profiled. Let's say Y, Z and A are particularly harsh but quite honest and valuable for readers to hear in public. (Let me tell you the obvious that people are hesitant to go on record to say caustic but true things that would really be useful to have on record, for the public, but relevant sources may (quite often) be shy to publicly critique the PM or CEO.)So the point of fact checking is not to have the verve of Y, Z and A withdrawn by X source, who may on reflection regret the honesty–but this would not serve the public. The fact checker of course confirms the general gist. It's not about putting ill-formed thoughts into a story. It's not about juicy quotations.It is all, lastly, underpinned by the original journalist, who the reader stakes trust in, to have reported fairly and accurately. This is a responsibility held by all writers, from blogs to the NY Times.

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  9. Harold Jarche

    Makes me think that you should record the interview or just respond via your blog – publicly. Thinking that's what I'll do from now on and who cares if I get fewer interviews from journos, they usually misquote me anyway.

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  12. Cynthia Brouse

    Cynthia Brouse here. Thanks, Jeremy, for quoting my guidelines and thanks for standing up for fact-checking. I don't blame David for finding the experience a little odd — the “don't check quotes, check only the facts within the quotes” rule has always been an awkward one. I tell my students that in the real world I often read quotations back to sources, provided there isn't any emotionally loaded language. The origin of this rule, which was passed on to me by many editors, is most likely the mistrust and surprise that some writers exhibit when they find out their stories will be fact-checked. “What? Somebody is going to call that guy back and ask him if he really told me that his ex-wife was a bitch? He's just going to recant everything.” The rule was something editors could cite to calm writers down. Fact-checkers have, unfortunately, been considered the low men and women on the totem pole, and can be cowed by writers and editors who think fact-checking is a great idea only until the checker asks them to cut something a source decided to retract. Fact-checkers find themselves having to reassure writers that they won't destroy a story by giving sources the opportunity to change what was said in an interview, and the “don't-check-quotes” rule must have been invented not just to rein them in but to give them something to fall back on.Experienced fact-checkers become very good at paraphrasing (“So, you didn't get along with your ex-wife?”) and knowing when to re-interview (“So, tell me about your relationship with your ex-wife”). And they know when it's OK to simply read the quote back to the source. Finally, they are skilled at reassuring the source by explaining the context in which the quote is being used.Clearly, a recording of the interview would solve this problem, but many writers don't record, many recordings are unclear, and checkers don't always have time to listen to them.I must admit I am on the fence about the weightier conflict here: if we change somebody's quote, are we altering reality or simply giving sources a fair chance to polish their words, something the writer has the opportunity to do with her own? I think each case has to be judged individually. Certainly if a source tells me that since the interview took place, they've realized they were wrong about something, or time has altered circumstances (historically an important consideration at monthly magazines, the birthplace of fact-checking, where long lead times could render a whole story, never mind a quote, completely false), then something needs to be fixed. Fact-checking is invaluable in these cases.Still, I was once quoted in an article in the Ryerson Review of Journalism in which I mangled a metaphor, and the checker checked my words against a recording, not with me. I was embarrassed when I saw the results in print — but I was the one who mangled the metaphor, and I suppose it said something about me.In any case, the new Internet-based media probably do muddy the waters, and I look forward to someone writing a book on fact-checking in the 21st century.

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  13. Cynthia Brouse

    Cynthia Brouse here. Thanks, Jeremy, for quoting my guidelines and thanks for standing up for fact-checking. I don't blame David for finding the experience a little odd — the “don't check quotes, check only the facts within the quotes” rule has always been an awkward one. I tell my students that in the real world I often read quotations back to sources, provided there isn't any emotionally loaded language. The origin of this rule, which was passed on to me by many editors, is most likely the mistrust and surprise that some writers exhibit when they find out their stories will be fact-checked. “What? Somebody is going to call that guy back and ask him if he really told me that his ex-wife was a bitch? He's just going to recant everything.” The rule was something editors could cite to calm writers down. Fact-checkers have, unfortunately, been considered the low men and women on the totem pole, and can be cowed by writers and editors who think fact-checking is a great idea only until the checker asks them to cut something a source decided to retract. Fact-checkers find themselves having to reassure writers that they won't destroy a story by giving sources the opportunity to change what was said in an interview, and the “don't-check-quotes” rule must have been invented not just to rein them in but to give them something to fall back on.Experienced fact-checkers become very good at paraphrasing (“So, you didn't get along with your ex-wife?”) and knowing when to re-interview (“So, tell me about your relationship with your ex-wife”). And they know when it's OK to simply read the quote back to the source. Finally, they are skilled at reassuring the source by explaining the context in which the quote is being used.Clearly, a recording of the interview would solve this problem, but many writers don't record, many recordings are unclear, and checkers don't always have time to listen to them.I must admit I am on the fence about the weightier conflict here: if we change somebody's quote, are we altering reality or simply giving sources a fair chance to polish their words, something the writer has the opportunity to do with her own? I think each case has to be judged individually. Certainly if a source tells me that since the interview took place, they've realized they were wrong about something, or time has altered circumstances (historically an important consideration at monthly magazines, the birthplace of fact-checking, where long lead times could render a whole story, never mind a quote, completely false), then something needs to be fixed. Fact-checking is invaluable in these cases.Still, I was once quoted in an article in the Ryerson Review of Journalism in which I mangled a metaphor, and the checker checked my words against a recording, not with me. I was embarrassed when I saw the results in print — but I was the one who mangled the metaphor, and I suppose it said something about me.In any case, the new Internet-based media probably do muddy the waters, and I look forward to someone writing a book on fact-checking in the 21st century.

    Reply

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