News literacy: Would you have spotted the problem in this story?

Friday, October 21, 2016
Over the course of time, we all decide where we’ll get our news. Some people pick their favorite TV news team; some pick their favorite radio news reporter; some decide which app or website they’ll check first. And some pick their favorite newspaper.

Each of these decisions carries the subtext: “I trust you to tell me the truth.”

It’s natural for us to assume that’s what they’ll do.

But even long-established and highly credible news organizations make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are so big the whole story needs to be “killed.”

One such story, written by an award-winning reporter, appeared on Page 1 of the Chicago Tribune July 21, 2013, under the headline “When a guide dog needs to retire.”

Now that you’ve read it, consider these questions:

  • Does the story make sense?
  • Is it written well?
  • Is it interesting?
  • Does it have any obvious gaps or problems?
  • Is it missing anything?

If you found no problems, you’re in good company. Because an award-winning reporter considered it good enough to print. And professional newspaper editors also thought it was fine.

Notice anything missing?

It’s something fundamental to good reporting, and something that all savvy news consumers should be aware of: VERIFICATION. Here, we’ll focus on a specific type of verification that you should be in search of in stories, and that is: Attribution. In News Literacy, we also call this the journalistic process of verification.

Attribution is simple: For reporters, it means telling the audience how you know what you know.

Every news report is built from just two kinds of content: Things the reporter knows, and things the reporter’s learned. “Things you know” are things seen or heard or otherwise witnessed personally. Almost everything else in a report is learned from someone or something else: In an interview, for instance; or at a news conference; or by researching. Each of those things a reporter has learned needs attribution.

Go back now and re-read the passage of this story that begins “In 1991, Maley was a 26-year-old Army private.”

Anything missing?

It’s the answer to a question every reporter, news editor, reader, viewer and listener should ask: “Says who?” In other words: The whole story of Maley’s time in the Gulf War lacks attribution.

You could be forgiven for assuming the whole story comes from him, but good journalism demands a reporter make that clear, by appending a phrase like “… Maley said.”

That at least would have cued editors and readers to the fact that the source of the information about Maley was Maley himself.

But anyone who then thought about that attribution line would recognize that that just wasn’t enough.

News Literacy counsels that we value stories with multiple sources. As written, this story didn’t offer even one source, because it didn’t cite Maley himself.

Especially in accounts of veterans and war, memory is notoriously unreliable. Taking just one man’s word about his military experience isn’t enough. Responsible reporters need to check a person’s military record—contacting the government, other veterans or family members.

In this case, that didn’t happen. The result was a flawed story that relied almost exclusively on one man’s story about his own life. It’s what’s known in journalism as a “one-source story.”

The story was so flawed that the newspaper two days later chose to retract (unpublish, remove from the web) the whole story and issue an apology.

What happened? The paper explained that John Maley wasn’t a war veteran—in fact, never even served in the Army—and lost his eyesight not to a roadside bomb but to diabetes.

The newspaper said it “failed to seek corroboration [another source] for his story,” and the result was that five-paragraph description of the explosion that just wasn’t true.

How did the paper learn of its mistake? It said a reader questioned Maley’s story, which prompted the paper to review public records and interview relatives who made clear the story was a fake.

Despite the Tribune’s promise to mend its ways, reporting on veterans is still a challenge. Here’s a correction from July 2016.

The Takeaway:

  1. As you read or watch or listen to news stories, ask these questions about every element: Is that something the reporter knows or something the reporter learned? If it was learned, how did the reporter learn it? Is every thing the reporter doesn’t know accompanied by attribution to someone else?
  2. Can you think of times when a single-source story might be OK?
  3. If the phrase “… Maley said” had followed his account of the bombing, would you have questioned the story’s accuracy more or less?
  4. If you were an editor reviewing a story like this, what questions might you ask a reporter before deciding whether to publish?
  5. If you were a reader with questions about a story, would you take the time to let a news organization know of your concerns?
  6. If no one had flagged this story’s problems, what do you think might have happened?
  7. The Tribune apology promised “steps to correct lapses in corroborating the facts in our reporting.” If you ran the newspaper, what steps would you take?
News Literacy Concept(s) :
Verification (by reporter); Source evaluation (by reader)

Lesson Objective (think SMART) :
This lesson will help readers think like fact-checkers and spot stories that haven’t been fully reported and may be false.

Discussion Questions:
  • Can “serious” or traditional news organizations make big mistakes?
  • How do such mistakes happen?
  • How can readers spot falsehoods?

Additional Resources:
The dangers of a one-source story [in business reporting]

[Originally prepared for the Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, October 2016.]

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