June 11, 2010

The Discipline of Verification

I’ve written many times about the discipline of verification — the subject of chapter 4 in The Elements of Journalism. Among the things this chapter cogently discusses is the near profession-wide misunderstanding of objectivity. The word is supposed to indicate a process of gathering and testing information; it was never meant to indicate a philosophical or political stance.

Kovach & Rosentstiel argue that the process — the methods — have been “intensely personal and idiosyncratic,” i.e. no discipline at all. They spend a lot of time in the latter half of the chapter attempting to describe what a discipline of verification might look like. Indeed, I think what they are really doing is creating one if its first articulations.

I plan to examine their discipline and add a few methods of my own. But for now I want to make something plain regarding opinion journalism: Its practitioners are subject to the same discipline because they are subject to the same craft — namely reporting. To the extent that a person peddling opinion reports and verifies, he or she may be called an opinion journalist. To the extent that a person fails to do these things, he or she may be called a pundit (acknowledging that pundits may also report and verify on occasion).

Both deal with opinion. And both may deal in useful opinion, i.e. opinion with a high degree of civic utility for the citizen.

The difference is that the opinions of the opinion journalist should spring from the craft of journalism first.

January 17, 2013

Linking And Verification

I’ll never stop harping on the discipline of verification — the essential practice of anything we would hope to call journalism.

And, once again, we see what happens when journalists fail to do the most essential and basic thing the practice of journalism demands.

Steve Buttry has much to say, and cogent advice, about the role of linking in verification.

As I tell my multimedia journalism students: “Always be linking.” I’ll also be assigning them to read everything about this current mess (including my media ethics students).

June 12, 2011

The Discipline That Is Journalism

In case I have not been clear over he years, I think the essential practice of journalism is the discipline of verification (re: Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001, 2007). Any communicative endeavor that would be called journalism by any persons who would call themselves journalists (pro or am) must be based on the discipline of verification: the checking and double-checking of facts with multiple sources.

There’s an old saw in journalism education used to hammer home this discipline:

If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

That assertion is a beautiful expression of the discipline because it 1) demonstrates its seriousness, and 2) disallows the shirking one’s responsibility even though the quality of the information may be obvious and/or difficult to verify.

This morning I read a Reporter’s Notebook column in the Springfield News-Leader from which we can tease another expression of the discipline. Not a replacement of the time-honored expression, but an attention-getter just the same.

If your grandmother says she was a bounty hunter, check it out.

And this is exactly what reporter Jess Rollins did.

Mags allowed her license to expire in 2005, a detail I learned from checking records at the Missouri Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration. (I always check records of sources I interview but I admit a hint of guilt in checking out the validity of my own grandmother’s story.)

While he plays the line for a smile, I’d bet sawbuck that he actually did it.

You see, Jess was a student of mine at MSU. He took my introductory course. Now I don’t want to be making any claims of having much to do with his professional success. But I will say that I do try to impress upon all of my students in all of my journalism classes that the discipline of verification is the essential skill of journalism. If you want to be good, be good at that.

But more, if you want to do important work that fulfills the primary purpose of journalism, be good at that.

That primary purpose (also from Kovach & Rosentstiel): To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

December 13, 2018

And Now For Something Completely Different

May I interest you in another story?

Because, really, I’m getting kinda sick of this whole viral video thing. And, no, I’m not linking to it again. You can scroll down.

Here, click these links:

The Boys of Tornillo

Messages of Hope Removed

The first video has a little over 20K views, and the second has around 6.5K views. These videos deserve to go viral because they actually have something to say about an important, ongoing news event. We actually have video that news organizations don’t have.

“We” is Carbon Trace Productions — the non-profit documentary education and humanitarian service organization that I founded. I serve as the president of the board of directors.

Click those links. You get an emotional experience that is real, not fake. You’ll see things happening that are real, not fake. And you’ll be able to check for yourselves. You can practice a discipline of verification to discover how real those videos are and exactly who made them and how they were made.

Then you can share those links on social media with confidence that you are not harming our civic discourse.

December 10, 2018

Not a Laughing Matter

Hello. I’m a 62-year old man, and I’m here to give you social media advice.

Best. Opening. Stand-up. Comedy. Line. Ever.

But seriously folks…

How I use social media


Twitter is a business tool for me. I never see viral content or much fake content because I operate with a strict rule to follow only legitimate, mainstream news organizations, professional organizations, and other groups with a high degree of public accountability. Individuals I follow have blue check marks or are personally known to me to be cogent, responsible thinkers.

If you don’t fit in that description, I don’t follow you.


Facebook for me is about personal stuff only. While I sometimes share things from the news that fit my interests (e.g. urbanism or documentary film), I never share anything about politics. Mostly, I share personal stuff.

I have 589 Facebook friends. I only follow a tiny fraction of these people– only those whose lives I want to be connected to on a daily basis. That’s actually a wide range for me if a small number. I follow across the (simplistic) political spectrum, although I pay very little attention to anything political.

If I follow you, and you post something that you should have done a better job of vetting, I’m likely to be pissy about it. One of my favorite lines is: “I’ll believe it when I see it in The New York Times.” I mean the NYT as a synecdoche — it’s a well-known part of a whole I understand as the legitimate, mainstream news media. (Although my wife pointed out just yesterday that I should change this to the Washington Post; she still hasn’t forgiven the Times for Judy Miller because, you know, war and death.) FYI: I subscribe to the the Times and the Post via smartphone app.

Facebook offers some great communications tools. I run several pages and several groups. And I like Messenger.


I used to love it. Now there are just so many ads and other crap that I only check in a couple times a week. I don’t post to it nearly as much as I used to. I only follow people I know personally.


I have been burned by my own laziness, stupidity, and gullibility. But it doesn’t happen that much any more because of how I use social media now. I’m also far more fearful about it. I’m far more skeptical than I was just 10 years ago. And I’m always eager to do the whole critical thinking thing. In short: I believe nothing posted by anyone or anything that I do not recognize as a legitimate source of information. Unless it has been vetted by an organization/individual that I trust to act as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification, I treat it as entertainment only.

IMHO, if you’re treating unvetted social media messages as true, you are a part of the problem. You are helping to degrade our civic discourse and dumb-down our nation. Stop it.


June 23, 2018

Verify Then Publish

No need to waste a lot of finger tapping to explain this. It’s a simple matter of practicing the discipline of verification.

No news organization should have run a single word about Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ alleged incident with The Red Hen restaurant until speaking with the person who allegedly tossed her out on her ear.

The Washington Post has finally done the work that should have been done before anything was published.

You see, Sanders is part of an administration that lies to the American people. Until checked out, the safest bet was to assume she was lying.

November 25, 2016

It Was Supposed to Make Us Smarter

There comes a moment every semester in my class MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence (because we couldn’t think of anything else to call it) when I tell students about two things I know to be true:

  1. Once you introduce a technology you can’t take it back.
  2. People will use technology for their own purposes and not necessarily the purposes imagined by its creators.

Think internet and porn.

Then again, think social media and fake news.

Apparently, the digital natives are having a difficult time with media literacy and critical thinking in the evaluation of information discovered online — especially as presented through social media.

What is fake news? Independent of rhetorical intention (e.g. satire, political manipulation, trolling, etc.), it seems to me that these are the essentials of fake news:

  1. Fake news imitates the time frame and time-bound nature of news. So the news-of-the-future skit on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In show does not count as fake news. Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live does.
  2. Fake news imitates standard news conventions (if imperfectly) regarding presentation and style.
  3. Fake news is counter-factual. This might seem like pointing out the obvious, but that state of being requires a culture to operate with a shared body of facts (not a shared interpretation of facts). I think we left that state of being behind a long time ago.
  4. Snippets of crap taken from fake news posted on social media is not fake news. That’s your Facebook buddy being a dumbass. That your buddy posted a meme or truncated snippet of bullshit is your opportunity to point out what a dumbass he is; it is not your opportunity to believe anything. In other words, fake news is the original expression following the first three points above. Conversely, your buddy posting a snippet based on real news is not real news until you’ve done the work of checking it out. (So, yes, in our current media environment the discipline of verification is also essential to citizenship.)

Fake news, then, isn’t a problem by itself. It can be wildly popular entertainment or cogently biting satire (here’s a good Black Friday example). Fake news is fun. It’s educational. I show the following video to all of my journalism students as an example of the problems caused by standard news form when you follow it uncritically:

The problem isn’t fake news. The problem isn’t even that people share fake news to social media.

The problem is a lack of media literacy and critical thinking.

Hmmmm… What to do…

September 18, 2015

My LOL Moment with Paul Krugman

The Rhetorica grumpiness continues…

I laughed out loud when I reached the conclusion of Paul Krugman’s column today in The New York Times:

I began writing for The Times during the 2000 election campaign, and what I remember above all from that campaign is the way the conventions of “evenhanded” reporting allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to make clearly false assertions — about his tax cuts, about Social Security — without paying any price. As I wrote at the time, if Mr. Bush said the earth was flat, we’d see headlines along the lines of “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”

Now we have presidential candidates who make Mr. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. But who will tell the people?

Just, wow.

You see, there are many people (e.g. bloggers, academics, academic bloggers, rational media critics of all sorts) who have been pointing this out for nearly two decades (confining my time frame to the blogging era and scope to national politics).

Two decades.

If you read Rhetorica regularly back in the day, you know who I’m talking about. Some of them remain linked on my sidebar.

No one in journalism listens. In fact, no one in journalism listens to the advice given in one of the profession’s revered texts: Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. Sometimes I think journalists like this book simply because the words sound good. I mean literally “sound.”

We — a large number of cogent critics — have been pointing out (for nearly two decades) that the business-as-usual, view-from-nowhere, inside-baseball, poll-driven, personality-driven way of covering politics is, in fact, not covering politics in the sense of meeting journalism’s primary purpose: To give people the information they need to be free and self-governing.

That has to mean, among other things, operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification, i.e. reporting not stenography.

Quite frankly there is very little political journalism in the United States of America.

A modest proposal: Actually giving the people the information they need to be free and self-governing might stop journalism’s slide into entertainment and, finally, into oblivion. That, obviously, means journalists have to understand what that kind of information is. So far they show no aptitude.

Senator Numbntuz says X. Senator Blowhard says Y. The polls say Z. And the pundits blather about what it “means.” The current practice of stenography stops there and lets the citizen figure it out. We are reminded daily how well that works.

September 27, 2013

No Adults Left At CNN

The adults have left CNN; the children are in charge.

How is it possible today not to understand the importance of, and indeed practice, the ethic of transparency? If we’ve learned nothing else in this technological revolution sweeping the news media it is this: an interactive media — the only kind left standing — demands transparency.

The argument is simple: In a media situation where anyone can report, publish, and be noticed, transparency (in purpose, methods, and  ethos) becomes the new umbrella ethic, the new route to credibility — the willingness to be open about who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. This is the opposite of the view from nowhere — the false notion that journalists can or should be “objective” in philosophical stance, that their news comes from some place apart from the pressures and intentions of the real world with no purpose other than to inform. (What journalists need to be are custodians of fact who operate with a discipline of verification — and be transparent about it.)

So we learn that the rebirth of the wretched Crossfire includes the abandonment of transparency — no obligation to report conflicts of interest to the viewer.

Well, to be fair, Crossfire ain’t journalism. And, really, given the excesses, excuses, mistakes, and silliness pointed out regularly by Jon Stewart, can we really call CNN an outlet for journalism? Maybe a couple hours per day.

This show is a vampire. Jon Stewart only wounded it before. Who will drive a stake through its evil heart and kill it for good?

June 7, 2013

Structural Bias and the Failing Press

Why does the press get it wrong so often (how often?) on the big stories (and small ones, too)?

Conor Friedersdorf offers a few reasons for some of the many screw-ups we’ve suffered lately. It’s like a lesson in the structural biases of journalism — the very list I’ve been telling you for more than 10 years is important in understanding not only why journalists do what they do but also why they fail when they do.

But that’s not to say that the structural biases are the only source of our recent problems. Another bugaboo familiar to long-time Rhetorica readers (and, apparently, there are still a few of you left) is the failure that occurs when journalists operate as something less than custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

And while I’m loathe the agree with Instapundit on much of anything, I do think there’s a large measure of “dumb” and “smug” going on.

Journalists — the older ones anyway — are suffering through a turbulent, tech-driven revolution that is raising questions about foundational issues such as the role of the audience, the economics of news, and the presentation of serious, text-driven journalism on 4-inch screens. Let me throw a life buoy — one I guarantee will float in this storm: Operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification and be a little more self-reflective about the role of the structural biases.

Just do it. Or continue to embarrass yourselves.

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