Who told you this stuff?

Image by Cameron Maddux released under Creative Commons

Reporting facts not opinions

It's the question many readers will be thinking and every journalist needs to be able to answer. Who told you this stuff?

If you fail to provide answers to this question, you are no longer reporting --- you are expressing an opinion. At least that's what the reader will think. So here is my essential "who says" guide for journalists. 

Attribution 101 or "Who put that bee in your bonnet?"

Your job as a reporter is to report - that means you need to gather information from outside sources and report on what those people, documents, reports or graphics had to say.

You are the unbiased professional who chronicles stuff that's happening and who tracks down people or other resources to confirm, as much as possible, the information that you're providing in your chronicle.

Consider this definition of your responsibility:

"The journalist's job is, in a fair and unbiased manner, to present the points of view of all of the parties involved in a dispute."

Someone may have told you that there are two sides to everything. They were only half right. In reality, there are usually more than two sides to everything. Your job is to determine who the disputing parties are and find out what they have to say.

You, as a reporter are not one of those parties involved in the dispute. Sure, you may have your opinion about what it all means, but your vote doesn't count. Not a bit. Not at all.

Again, you are never a party in the dispute. Never. Not at all. Under no circumstances. Don't even think about it.

As a reporter your opinion doesn't count

Some test cases

Let's apply the definition to a couple of situations so we can identify all of the parties involved in the dispute:

The police arrest a woman on the suspicion that she robbed a restaurant at gunpoint.

Who are the parties involved in the dispute?

Certainly, the police have a dispute with the woman they arrested.

What do they have to say? If they don't talk to you, where else can you get their point of view? An arrest report? A booking document? The police log? A watch commander? The police chief?

Somebody or some document will provide you with the point of view of the police.

The second party involved in the dispute has to be the woman the police arrested. Nobody waltzes into a police department and says, "I'm bored today, would you please arrest me?"

So we must conclude that she is, indeed, one of the parties involved in a dispute.

The fact that the police officers put handcuffs on her makes it pretty clear that she's involved in a dispute.

Can you speak with her? It's possible, but most times it's difficult.

But difficult is not an excuse if you're a reporter and your mission is to present the points of view of all of the parties involved in a dispute.

Don't be afraid to ask the police if you may speak with her. If she's in jail when you're working on the story, make a request to speak with her. If there are open visiting hours, pay her a visit.

Ask the police to give her a message that requests she calls you.

Mail her a letter if the time allows. Ask a family member to put her in touch with you.

If she has an attorney, ask the attorney for permission to talk with her directly. Or, if that fails, ask the attorney to provide you with the woman's point of view.

Is that the only dispute? Of course not. If there was a robbery, in almost all cases it involved a suspect using "force, fear or intimidation" to convince another person to hand over money or something else of value.

You can't rob a place - you can only rob people in that place. Otherwise, it's more likely to be a case of burglary. I point this out because it's a mistake reporters make all of the time.

So who is another person involved in the dispute? Whoever it was that had to hand over the loot - as a result of force, fear or intimidation - was, at least for a moment, involved in a dispute. Whether it was the owner, an employee or a customer, your job is to find that person or those persons and determine their points of view with regard to the dispute.

Do whatever you can to contact people who were in the restaurant at the time and zero in on that person or those persons upon whom the woman may have tried to use force, fear or intimidation in the attempt of taking something that didn't belong to her.

The police have already interviewed victims and witnesses. It's not wrong to ask the police to point you in their direction. After all, if the police officer believes you're going to tell the world what a great job they did (their point of view), they will often hand you the evidence on a silver platter. In essence, you're asking the police the same question your readers will be asking you - who says someone tried to rob someone?

What about the customers or employees who were not the object of the robbery attempt? Are they parties involved in a dispute? Easy answer - yes.

If you're sitting in a restaurant and some woman is holding a gun on someone else, you are involved. That means that witnesses belong in the category of parties involved in the dispute. Talk to them.

Does that end your search for parties involved in the dispute? You already knew that the answer would be "No," didn't you? Now there's a dispute about to take place between the suspect and the prosecutor. And that will almost always mean there's a dispute between the suspect's attorney and the prosecutors.

When they go to court, there are constant disputes between the attorneys or advocates and the judge or magistrate. There will be disputes between the members of the jury.

There will be disputes between the victims and the suspect. Maybe there will be civil case disputes between people in the restaurant and the owners who maybe didn't provide a safe environment.

If the judge or jury convicts the woman and sentences her to prison, she will be in constant dispute with prison officials about when she may be paroled.

The original victims may take their original dispute to the parole board hearing in an effort to keep the woman behind bars. And when this dangerous convict finally gets out of prison, there will be a parole officer there to dispute what the woman can, can't, did or didn't do.

Even neighbors who object to having such convicts living in their neighborhoods can speak up to share their points of view.

So imagine now that you're a reader and this is what is in the newspaper:

Susie Smith is a robber who should go to prison for stealing money and jewelry from people at Barnacle Boyd's Beef Buffet. She scared the customers half to death. People have always been suspicious of Smith because she is a known shoplifter and probably robbed other business establishments. If she gets out of prison, she would be a danger to the neighborhood where she has lived. Hopefully, she won't be allowed to return there.

And, hopefully, you were able to quickly see that this is the wrong approach. Maybe everything written here is true, but it begs one question - "Who says?"

If the answer to the 'who says' question is you, then you need to scratch that line from the story

The story piece by piece

Who says Susie Smith is a robber? In the beginning, nobody. The people in the restaurant are pretty sure a robber came in, but who says it was Susie Smith who actually came into the restaurant?

The police arrested a Susie Smith, but not because she IS a robber - but rather because they BELIEVE she COULD BE the robber. They have their own standards of "Who says," before they can arrest her.

Does Susie Smith say she's a robber? Probably not. Neither would her attorney. The prosecutors may tell the judge and jury that she is a robber, but everyone knows they have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge could say that she's a robber, but only after the jury or the judge makes such a ruling. After a conviction for robbery (not some lesser crime), Susie Smith is, indeed, a convicted robber. But this requires a trial and a conviction for robbery.

Who says Susie Smith should go to prison? The police may say so, but they don't have the power or authority to send someone to prison.

They can lock someone up in a jail until the judge or jury decides her fate, but they are in no position to dictate whether she should go to prison.

All they can do is present the evidence and witnesses to a prosecutor for a determination of whether to officially charge Susie Smith with robbery.

A prosecutor will likely say that Susie Smith should go to prison. That's the prosecutor's opinion, and it had better be based on facts that the prosecutor can support. The judge or jury can also say that she should go to prison.

Who says Susie Smith scared the customers half to death? The customers can certainly say that they felt scared half to death, but who scared them?

They know that someone scared them, but unless they knew Susie Smith before the incident, they certainly can't say that it was Susie Smith who scared them.

Of course, if they are witnesses in court, they can testify that the defendant sitting in court, who happens to be named Susie Smith, is the person who scared them. But half to death?

How does a person know that they were halfway to death as a result of the fear? Surely, that would require a talented medical person with a lot of experience in fear-caused death.

Who says they have been suspicious of Susie Smith? Sure, anyone can say it, but is it based on fact? Is it relevant to the story?

Who says she is a shoplifter who has robbed other establishments? Court records could say that. Prosecutors could say that.

Police could say that they've arrested her for those crimes, but that doesn't mean that a judge or jury convicted her of it.

Her criminal history report could verify those things, however most police officers or prosecutors are forbidden from disclosing such details.

So what should you do? It would be up to you to find public documents or reliable government sources to confirm a prior history of crimes. But it's not a good idea to base the information on people who say they've always been suspicious.

Who says, "If she gets out of prison . . .?" To report on this would require first that someone (judge or jury) has already sentenced her to prison.

Who says she would be a danger to the neighborhood? The answer is that neighbors say that and, too often, reporters report it --- especially if it involves rape or molestation.

Think about it. Do we report on the points of view of those living in the neighborhoods where released murderers or robbers or counterfeiters will be living?

If we don't make it a habit of doing a "neighborhood attitude" check on every felon who is released to a neighborhood, are we reporting in a "fair and unbiased manner?"

The next time you see one of these stories, look for the point of view of the released ex-felon. Does his or her point of view ever show up in the story? Absolutely never.

When the court declared that person a convicted rapist or child molester, we had the right to declare him exactly that. Why? Because the judge said so. So if the court also agrees with the prison officials that the person has served his time and has repaid his debt to society, who is it to say that he is still a danger to anyone?

Sure, there are statistics and there are neighbors who are whipped up in fear, but what's the difference between a rapist and a burglar when it comes to neighborhood safety?

Is it OK for a released convict to burglarize a neighbor's house or kill someone, but it's not OK for him to be a rapist of child molester? It's a stupid question, but it goes to the rights of people.

My point is that you have no right to provide the points of view of future neighbors without providing the point of view of the prisoner who has served his time.

Could you tell that I have issues with the way many reporters, news directors and editors handle these cases?

Every statement and piece of information needs to be verified, sourced and attributed

What is the truth?

It's a trick question, because, when it comes to reporting, there are four truths. You can write about three of them by simply quoting particular people:

Truth number one: When the prosecutor or plaintiff declares in court that someone is guilty of or responsible for something, it is safe to quote as if it were true.

Truth number two: When the defendant, the respondent or his or her attorney says in open court that what the prosecutor or plaintiff says is not correct. The truth is, that the defendant or respondent is not guilty. Both sides are under oath to tell the truth so you can report it as a truth.

Truth number three: When a judge or jury or other deciding person or body comes to a verdict based upon evidence presented, that is the truth. If the judge or jury says someone is guilty, it is the truth. If they declare that the person is innocent, that is the truth.

Truth number four: After reporting on what the disputing parties say in court and on what the final verdict is, the journalist should still be looking for truth number four - what really happened. It's not the opinion of the reporter. It's the "who says" evidence that the reporter compiles that proves, beyond any doubt, that what he or she is reporting is reality. Keep in mind that, to tell the fourth truth, the reporter has to present a set of "who says" (documents, graphics, or quotes from people) evidence that is irrefutable. The reporter must present each piece of evidence that he or she can attribute to a reliable and identified source.

Searching for The Fourth Truth is often where the real journalism starts

Some simple rules

From the very beginning of a story to an explosive fourth truth story, the reporting will always look the same. It will always be the presentation of things people (or documents or graphics) have said. It goes like this:

"Police say they've arrested a woman . . ."
Not, "A woman was arrested . . ."

"Witnesses say a blonde woman came into the restaurant with a gun."
Not, "Susie Smith walked into the restaurant with a gun."

"Prosecutors say they have charged her with armed robbery."
Not, "She robbed the restaurant."

"Prosecutors say that, if convicted, Smith could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison."
Not, "She should go to prison for 15 years."

"A jury of seven women and five men has convicted Susie Smith of armed robbery."
Not, "Susie Smith was found guilty of armed robbery."

"At least three of Susie Smith's neighbors are trying to convince the corrections department to place the convicted robber in a different neighborhood after being released. They say they believe that she would be a danger to the neighborhood. Smith, however, says that she has served her time and that there is no grounds for their demands."

Not, "Susie Smith has proven that she is a robber and she should not be allowed to move back into her old neighborhood."

"Despite the claims made public by people in the neighborhood, reporters could find no records that show that Smith was ever arrested or convicted of any other crimes. Her probation file, which was available to the public for 60 days following her conviction, indicated that, up to that time, she had no record of arrests or convictions."
Not, "Neighbors are worried because they believe that Smith had committed other crimes before she robbed the restaurant."

Some better approaches to typical stories

Wrong: "Senator Plowhorse dislikes troublemakers."
Better: "Senator Plowhorse says he dislikes troublemakers."

Wrong: "The president wants to lower taxes."
Better: "The president says she wants to lower taxes."

Wrong: "The prime minister will move to the countryside when he is out of office."
Better: "The prime minister says he will move to the countryside when he is out of office. Or: "The minister of information says the prime minister plans to move to the countryside..."

Wrong: "The vice president is almost never in his office."
Better: "The vice president's official calendar shows that he has taken more days of vacation than the last four VPs combined. And the travel reports he has submitted show that he has traveled abroad, on official business, at least 16 times in the past two years."

Wrong: "Everyone knows that Senator Brocklawyer practices nepotism."
Better: "Vital records that are publically available to anyone show that Senator Brocklawyer's staff includes two of his brothers-in-law, one of his children, his ex-wife and seven cousins."

Wrong: "Assemblyman Plunckcastor is not gay."
Better: "'I am not gay,' Assemblyman Plunckcastor said."

Wrong: "More than 3,000 people showed up for the first annual pig-polishing competition."
Better: "According to organisers, more than 3,000 people showed up for a pig-polishing competition."

Wrong: "Don't believe anything the CEO of the airlines says."
Better: "The union spokesman said that the CEO of the airlines appears to be misinformed about..."

Wrong: "The police chief couldn't be reached for comment."
Better: "Daily News reporters were unable to reach the police chief for comment."

Wrong: "It's going to rain tomorrow."
Better: "Weather Bureau officials are predicting rain for tomorrow."

Wrong: "The parliament is making a big mistake."
Better: "Members of the protest group, Stop The Killing, say that the parliament is making what they call a big mistake."

Wrong: "If you have any information about this crime, call the investigators at..."
Better: "Investigators are asking anyone with information about the crime to call..."

Image by Cameron Maddux and released under Creative Commons

Don RayDon Ray is a seasoned broadcast and print investigative reporter. He has worked worldwide for IREX and many other training and consulting organisations. All his tips, techniques and modules can be reused under the terms of Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0. You can This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you want his help.



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