Thursday, June 19, 2014

In news reporting, skepticism checks out

Posted By on 06.19.14 at 09:30 AM

Good reporters check everything out--because theres no reason to assume this mother actually loves her son.
  • Good reporters check everything out—because there's no reason to assume this mother actually loves her son.
Columnist Jonah Goldberg lambastes the media in Wednesday’s Tribune for credulously swallowing the White House line that the IRS’s "alleged targeting of political groups hostile to the president" isn’t much of a story.

"The storied City News Bureau of Chicago famously lived by the motto 'If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,'" writes Goldberg. "The bureau closed down several years ago. Perhaps that kind of skepticism died with it."

And don’t we all miss it! Gone forever is the kind of top-notch reporting and measured writing that characterized Chicago journalism in its heyday. Gone too is the skepticism that questioned everything except, perhaps, the received wisdom on skepticism. I can imagine an old-school exchange from yesteryear:

Reporter (dictating story over phone): ". . . The victim’s mother ran to the body and collapsed alongside it, wailing, 'I loved my baby and now he’s gone!'"

Editor: How do you know that, kid?

Reporter: I was there.

Editor: How do you know she loved him?

Reporter: Gosh, chief—nobody said she didn’t.
Editor: Nobody’s going to contradict a grieving mother at a crime scene. But that doesn’t make it so. You need a second source on this.

Reporter (glancing outside phone booth): The crowd’s scattered.
Editor: Then you might have to knock on some doors. Shoot for the three-star. For now we’ll leave it out.

Reporter: But it’s color!

Editor: Kid, you got a lot to learn. Color’s nice but accuracy is the ballgame.

Reporter: What if we tweak the story? We could make it read, "The victim’s mother ran to the body and collapsed alongside it, wailing, 'I loved my baby and now he’s gone!'—a claim the Daily Reflux could not independently verify."

Editor: Now we’re all but calling her a liar.

Reporter: How about this? "She collapsed alongside the body, alleging, 'I loved my baby. . .'"

Editor: That could work. Especially if we can say the claim was uncontested by anyone in the crowd, many of them presumably neighbors with first-hand knowledge of the mother-son relationship. Did anyone shout something along the lines of, "We know you did!"?

Reporter: Didn’t hear that.

Editor: Damn! Would have shored things up. Sorry, kid, but here's my call. We eschew the melodrama and stick with what we're sure of. A woman whose claim to be a parent of the victim went unchallenged by eyewitnesses made an unverifiable assertion of love and grief in a scene onlookers described as wrenching.

Reporter: I know I got a lot to learn, but I’m curious, chief—when Mom says she loves us we check it out. But, like, with who? Who knows who Mom loves better than Mom does?

Editor: Dad.

Reporter: It’s OK to go with Dad?

Editor: You gotta trust somebody.

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