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Are journalists supposed to tell the truth, or tell a story?

Robert Niles
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Published: January 16, 2013 at 11:57 PM (MST)
Journalism occupies an unstable place between novels and social science. While news publications aspire to truth-telling, in training and practice, reporters work more often as creative storytellers than disciplined researchers.

The Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax illustrated the predictable result -- journalists are suckers for a good story, and won't bother to let the inconvenience of verifying get in their way of telling it.

Talking with numbersI majored in math and social science as an undergraduate, and took several "hard science" lab courses in both college and high school. That makes me a bit of a freak in the journalism profession, where the vast majority of reporters and editors I've worked with over the years had -- at best -- a limited understanding of and ability to practice math. Many knew of the scientific method as a concept, but very few ever had designed or conducted an experiment or academic literature review.

Journalism education instead focuses on the format of telling stories -- with multiple courses in writing, editing and presentation. Most journalism schools require students to complete classes in the social sciences, but those are almost always lower- to mid-level survey courses that rarely demand formal research skills.

Without training or experience in the formal methods that social scientists employ to find truth, journalists -- essentially -- wing it. Journalism reporting teachers love to scare their students with the cliche: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out" (which I've amended to this), but how, exactly, are reporters supposed to "check it out"?

Call your dad and ask him what mom's saying behind your back? Read her mail? Follow her home from work and see if she stops off to see any other kids first? You'll find as many ways to "check it out" as reporters you bother to ask.

And that's the problem. When you don't have a time-tested scientific method for pursuing truth in research, you've instead got to bring an almost crippling level of skepticism to your work. It's hard to connect with a community (something I argue is vital for journalism's survival), if you're forcing yourself to look upon everyone you meet as a potential liar.

Some publications -- notably magazines -- do a better job of enforcing a routine reporting process than others, allowing reporters to set aside emotional judgments and get in the habit of fact-checking everything. But for most reporters, whether or not to fact-check is a judgment call. And it's hard to make the right judgment when you're tempted by one beauty of a story.

That's what the tale of Te'o's alleged girlfriend was: a tragic story of love denied -- one that would allow broadcasters to reach beyond a core audience of college football fans to millions of other drama-loving viewers clicking around the dial on an autumn's Saturday night. So they went for it. They reacted like story-tellers, not social scientists.

Only when the reporters at Deadspin applied some real research did those other reporters learned that they'd been burned.

I'm sure that this episode will encourage many reporters to work more skeptically, at least for a while. But for how long? How long will reporters be able to hold out when new, equally alluring stories emerge?

Evolution doesn't happen when an organism suddenly alters its form to adapt to a changing environment. It happens when organisms that lack the ability to survive in that environment die, leaving only the mutants that can live to survive and reproduce new generations.

If journalism is to evolve from a form of quick-turnaround storytelling to a more rigorous practice of finding and reporting truth, it can't rely on current reporters to change their time-hardened ways. It needs new teachers, new reporters and new publication standards -- ones inspired more by science and less by literature -- to come forward and take their place.

Otherwise, we're just marking time until the next fake story blows up.

Robert Niles is the author of "How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online," a guidebook for aspiring website publishers, available for $6.99 [eBook] or $11.99 [paperback] from Amazon.com.

Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.com

© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.