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.

7 Responses

  1. Nice post, Andy. I agree with you; I think verification is the most important element articulated by Kovach and Rosenstiel.

    I think it’s also at the roots of resistance for legacy media organizations in the online space: How do I do my verification when there is such a push for immediacy?

  2. acline 

    Jonathan… Good question. I’ve been pushing the idea — pure heresy — that immediacy needs to be resisted by those who would be serious. Not easy, obviously.

  3. Sven 

    Ima have to disagree. The essential practice of journalism is the semantic parsing of words into quantum oblivion.

  4. acline 

    Sven… How could I have been so wrong all these years 🙂

  5. Sven 

    But seriously, the ruckus up here in Wisconsin as been an interesting crucible for journalism. Many members of our press corps haven’t risen to the high-interest, high-stakes occasion, while others have excelled.

    Jessica Arp, a television reporter in Madison, has definitely risen to the occasion. Her live tweets from court hearings and committee meetings are followed religiously, and she continuously feeds facts into the online debate. Her iPhone-produced “Mobile Updates,” freed from the conventions of teevee visuals, are IMO simply fantastic. There’s hope yet.

  6. acline 

    Sven… We have reporter at the N-L, former student of mine, also putting Twitter to excellent use. I’m sure that has nothing to do with me as she took my ethics class. Or maybe it does 😉

  7. Sven 

    I think ethics are central to what Ms. Arp and other innovators are achieving, and it’s why she has impeccable credibility. As heated as it has become up here, to my knowledge she hasn’t received one tweet complaining about bias.