June 17, 2004

Information and authority…

Yesterday I began exploring the practice of quoting anonymous sources with these questions in mind: How are the concepts of “discipline of verification” and “custodian of fact” related? And is a discipline of verification really opposed to the idea that reporters can and should state the facts as they understand them outside the confines of verification by anonymous sources? These questions followed my reading of Daniel Okrent’s column in The New York Times on Sunday and responses by Jack Shafer and Tim Porter (be sure to read the comments on yesterday’s entry).

The discipline of verification is the adherence to an institutionalized set of journalistic practices for arriving at the most accurate portrayal of events. These practices include standardized methods of gathering and evaluating information and writing and editing the article.

Being custodians of fact means that journalists should not merely relay “both sides” of a story equally. Instead, they should fact-check all sources and then report the results of such fact-checking, thus creating a proportional representation of sources. This concept, however, challenges the fairness bias and is, therefore, controversial.

What is the relationship between these concepts?

The latter is a point of view in regard to information derived from sources. This point of view regards all information as suspect until verified (not just official statements). The reporter acting as a custodian of fact understands that all human communication is rhetorical, political and value-laden. This requires the reporter to check all statements from sources to see if they conform to fact, i.e. a generally accepted understanding of what the situation is and the measurements/observations that make up that situation. (I am bracketing out a correspondence theory of truth here because I don’t believe it corresponds with the truth. Instead, refer to Lakoff and Johnson’s embodied theory of truth.) The reporter then presents information from sources in a hierarchy based on veracity. This means information from sources with a high level of veracity is given more play and/or attention than information from sources with a low level of veracity. Source information is played proportionally rather than equally. (This also challenges the status quo bias because veracity in this paradigm trumps authority.)

The discipline of verification ensures that facts and information correspond to our understandings of a situation or reports based on measurements and/or observations.

I raised the issue of custodianship yesterday because I think it is a way to begin thinking about how to deal with anonymous sources. The current paradigm requires merely that political reporters “get both sides of the story.” That Senator Blowhard might be spewing nonsense in an official statement is hardly a journalistic concern today in Washington (partly because, if we believe Shafer and Porter, all official statements are considered less than forthcoming). Making sure to get Senator Numbnutz’s reaction to Blowhard is a concern. The reader is left to figure it out.

The question I have asked many times in regard to this is: How is the reader to figure it out? A press that sees itself as custodian of facts provides one possible route to an answer, i.e. change the paradigm.

Sources have rhetorical intentions that are well served by anonymity. Reporters have a constant professional and economic need to discover new information. Being custodians of fact allows journalists to counter anonymity in this way: Proportionality in the presentation of source material may put pressure on sources to be more forthcoming.

Obviously, reality is not nearly as neat as I just portrayed it. In politics, it is often the case that the reporter has no route to the facts except through the human source. And if the source has propagandistic intentions, there’s little the reporter can do about it except present “both sides” and hope the truth will out.

This brings me to my second question that follows Okrent, Porter and Shafer: Is a discipline of verification really opposed to the idea that reporters can and should state the facts as they understand them outside the confines of verification by anonymous sources?

Should reporters state the facts as they understand them based on their own authority? Much of the institution of American journalism would answer: No. But we also know that it happens frequently by the citing anonymous sources. When reporters invoke anonymous sources, they ask readers to accept facts based on nothing more than the authority of the news organization. We news consumers have no idea who highly placed sources are or if (re: Jayson Blair et. al.) they even exist without a name and a title. I am not suggesting that journalists are liars or that they routinely manufacture quotes. I don’t believe that. But journalists do ask us to take it on faith when they quote anonymous sources. The only authority in such situations is the news organization itself because it is the only identifiable authority (just because the “highly placed source” is placed in, for example, the State Department doesn’t shift the responsibility away from the news organization because anonymity allows deniability).

I corresponded with Tim Porter yesterday by e-mail regarding his entry (linked above) and my intention to cover this topic today. He wrote, in part:

Much of this goes to the issue of “authority.” Is the newspaper the authority? Is it a vehicle upon which the citizens can rely for authoritative, i.e., accurate, sound, truthful, information?

Reporters strive, as their careers advance, to write with more authority, meaning to report and write stories that convey solidity, depth and knowledge in contrast to the “according to” convention taught in basic reporting classes. Yet, even though good reporters become more knowledgeable in their fields, the forms of journalism discourage overt expression of that knowledge.

Yes, the rhetoric of the profession expresses its epistemology: the reporter is not the knower; the source is the knower. Yet reporters do come to know and want to act on that knowing. The rhetoric of the profession, and its fairness bias, constrain their ability to relay all that they may know (both Porter and I assume, for the sake of argument, talented and honest reporters).

When the knower won’t take responsibility for the known, the responsibility falls to the reporter and the news organization. By invoking a “highly placed source,” the news organization implicitly accepts responsibility.

It seems to me that journalists who practice a discipline of verification and operate as custodians of fact are in a better position to accept the responsibility for anonymous sources. Further, being custodians of fact argues for maximum transparency. If reporters allow a source to give information anonymously, then they should tell readers as much about the context of that decision as they know and the results of verification.

Should reporters, then, state what they know to be true on their own authority? The discipline of verification is opposed to the idea that reporters can and should state the facts as they understand them outside the confines of verification. But as long as professional standards of verification are followed, I believe we may begin to accept that reporters, as players in the game, can and should tell what they know on the authority of the news organization. Yes, there are a thousand things that could go wrong here. I am asserting only a shift in the rhetoric of journalism that I believe is well underway. What the best practices should be in this regard must be debated.

Information (statements about facts in the world) does not exist without a human intention. Every little bit of information relayed by the media everyday springs from some human intention to communicate it. And, I would further argue, that those intentions are rhetorical, i.e. to move hearts and minds. For information to become knowledge (information embedded in a context), news consumers must know something of its origin, context and purpose. Whether information is cited from anonymous sources or stated on the authority of the news organization, it is politically useless without trust, accuracy, and an understanding of its origin, context and purpose. To be good, journalism, whether it relies on anonymous sources or not, must meet these needs.

4 Responses

  1. Charles Knell 

    It would have been nice if the link to “embodied theory of truth” had gone to something as useful as the link to “correspondence theory of truth”. I recognize that Rhetorica is an unpaid labor of love for you and that it is not incumbent upon you to do everything I would like you to do, but I still don’t have a clear idea of exactly what it (“embodied theory of truth”) means and the readers’ reviews on Amazon haven’t set my heart racing at the thought of reading the book.

  2. acline 

    Charles…thanks for calling me on this one. I knew I was being lazy when I linked to the book. I’ve defined it in other posts. But it’s unreasonable to suppose that readers should have to go hunting for it.

    In short, the embodied theory of truth is different from correspondence theory in that it accepts truth as contingent upon human understanding. It is not, however, a subjective theory. It is a transactionalist theory in that it does not deny the reality of physical phenomena. The theory asserts that truth is found in our interaction with phenomena.

  3. Charles Knell 

    I’m not an academic, just a reasonably well-read citizen. The difference between these two understandings of what “truth” is seems to correspond to an argument I have been having with a friend for some time. His idea of truth is pretty much of the “correspondence” school. While not denying that, I make a distinction between “facts” and “truth” where he will not acknowledge the difference.

    There are non-controversial propositions. Take the case of two friends who are planning to go to a movie theater. One asks the other, “What time does the movie start?” The other replies, “8:45.” The first says, “I think it starts at 8:30.” How do they discover the truth? They could call the theater and ask. The disagreement would end there. The fact of the movie’s starting time is settled. More importantly it isn’t very important to anyone’s worldview. It is a simple fact.

    There are other propositions that are not generally agreed. Let’s take one that is popular with citizens who opposed the invasion of Iraq, “Invading Iraq is all about oil.” To those people who hold this view, it is a “True” statement. To those who don’t agree, it is nonsense.

    This statement is not easily verified by some means that parties on opposite sides of the question can readily agree. The “Truth” of the propsition is manifest and undeniable to those holding the view. Its falseness is equally manifest and undeniable to those who disagree.

    Do the parties live in a different world? No, they don’t. But they plainly understand their common world in different ways. The truth or falseness of such propositions is very important to those involved in this argument unlike the question of “What time does the movie start?”

    My view is that the more important the truth of a proposition is to someone, the less important facts are in informing his opinion. People will dismiss facts contradictory to their view as “unimportant” or even as lies. They will invest great importance in facts that a disinterested party would not invest much weight in. They will make statements about facts in support of their view that are demonstrably false and will deny any refutation no matter how persuasive it may be to a disinterested party.

    What I’m saying is that “Truth” is created by persons combining facts, prejudices, fears, hopes, faith, and lies. That kind of “Truth” is core to a person’s image of himself, the world, and how he fits into it. The more important such a “Truth” is, the less amenable it is to persuasion. You can’t expect to offer some contradictory facts to someone and have him change a cherished belief about “Truth”. That someone’s idea of what is “True” doesn’t correspond to what my idea of what is “True” doesn’t trouble me. I expect that to be the case in important questions. I do not need to pry into what’s going on inside another person’s head. Basically all I’m concerned with is how whatever is going on inside someone’s head controls his or her behavior.

    All this being said, people are persuadable. Sometimes people are persuaded bit-by-bit, indirectly, and over a long period. Sometimes a person is just riding on a donkey to Damascus.

  4. acline 

    Charles…your thoughts about truth fit the embodied model fairly well. It doesn’t deny the correspondence model outright. Rather, it clams that theory is missing the other, subjective half.