On considering one’s sources

‘Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial’

– Bob Dylan, ‘Visions of Johanna’[1]

‘The island of doubt

It’s like the taste of medicine

Working by hindsight…

Making a list

Find the cost of opportunity

Doing it right

Facts are useless in emergencies…

Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts won’t do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out

Facts are getting the best of them

Facts are nothing on the face of things’

– Talking Heads, ‘Crosseyed and Painless’[2]

‘Describe the training in research methods that you had received before commencing this course and reflect on its applicability to research in the field of records and archives.’

Abstract:

In this essay I will discuss the process of journalistic fact-checking in the United States, and how the research training I received as a masters student in musicology and archival science has been framed by the training I acquired as a journalist. After briefly describing fact-checking’s role in the editorial process and how it is performed, I hope to show how the contrast between academic and journalistic research, though profound, results largely from three distinct orientations on place, narrative and time. The first is the differing value placed on witnessing; second, differing values placed on research practice and its interaction with narrative economy; and third, differing perceptions of the goals and longevity of the result(s) of one’s research. To conclude, I will describe my own sense of how both types of research, and its results, are not as opposed as often assumed, but reside on the same historical and cultural continuum.

To note:

In far too many ways to get into here, money makes of course for enormous differences between journalism and scholarship. Also, my academic studies were conducted via ‘soft’ social science methods; literature review, interviews, and a little fieldwork. As the topic of this essay demands it (please see above), this is what I’ve written about about.

 

I. Starting at the Bottom: Friends in Low Places

In 1997 I joined the research department of Vanity Fair. It was my first post in a journalism career I pursued for twelve years. Like many, I started out quite near the very bottom, doing basic fact-checking. Subsequently, I worked as a research deputy, research editor, staff writer, and/or staff editor at three magazines, and as a freelance researcher at over a dozen.

The publications I worked for were primarily mass-market monthlies and weeklies. Those I found most interesting concerned pop culture and, in a broad sense, music of the African diaspora.

The subject matter is important to mention, as the kind of journalism I was checking and writing, with a few important exceptions, is often considered ‘low’ journalism. The magazines I worked for took entertainment as both their focus, and intended effect. Political journalists, for instance, will tend to consider pop culture writing a debased tributary of the profession. This sense of value, I suspect, has to do with their sense of importance, and not only their own; ‘serious’ journalists feel that they are covering subjects of lasting significance, issues tied up with the great themes of the past and the future. They were writing history, in other words, while we lower scribblers were conjuring distraction.

Often that perception was undeniably accurate, but this sense of what is timeless and what is ephemeral is reflected also in the approaches I learned later doing academic research, and has had great resonance for me in the study of archival theory and practice.

 

Witnessing

I. Source and Trace: The ‘First Rough Draft of History’[3], and the Second

If the Fourth Estate as an institution takes bearing witness in the civic and social sphere as its duty and ultimate goal, journalists are bound to a similar charge in the literal sense; to witness events as they happen. In journalism as in law, to witness at first hand wields great evidential weight.

In essence, fact-checking (or simply ‘research’ in industry parlance) consists of confirming the accuracy of all statements of fact made within an item prepared for publication or broadcast.

When taking on a story, magazine researchers carve each sentence into sections, marking up proper names, quotes, dates, numerical or statistical information, and other factual material.

They then consult the author’s supporting documentation, if any. This may include contact information for media representatives and interviewees, press releases, often a sheaf of press accounts, and/or transcripts and handwritten notes made at the event they are writing about.

For the researcher, all but the last two of these sources are scrutinized, contact information included. However, interview transcripts and notes—provided the transcription was made from a recording of the interview, and that the notes were made at the time and place they refer to—generally assume a greater value. As they document first-hand observation, they are considered ‘higher’ forms of witnessing.

Indeed, as part of my training, I was told that any assertion the reporter marked ‘on author’ or ‘first-hand’ indicated the writer was present at the time the event occurred and therefore no more investigation needed to be done.

This evidential hierarchy of records cannot ensure that a story contains only unassailable truth of course, as fact-checkers are then not verifying at all but simply relying on the writer’s honesty[4]. Research editors know this, but the fact remains that interview tapes and notes have a solid record of holding up as evidence at trial and so are granted a kind of ‘witness amnesty’.

Witnessing

II. The Journalistic Ouroboros

 

A researcher’s court of second resort in investigating journalists’ accuracy is, ironically, other journalists. Different magazines uphold differing standards regarding which publications they consider accurate and/or how many press accounts they require to verify a claim is factually ‘solid’, but when in doubt, it’s fair to say that most research editors will tell their fact-checkers to ‘see if anyone else has written about it’, and send them off to dig through Nexis or simply to Google.

It could be said that this practice constitutes the second draft of history consulting the first, though that might pay magazines undue flattery. But it certainly is second-line writers consulting front-line writers in order to fashion a coherent narrative. Exiled Russian author Alexander Herzen said that ‘history is the autobiography of a madman’[5], which certainly seems true if you are expecting newspaper headlines to tell a sensible story of human events. Magazine writers are trying to stitch together the ‘plot’[6]; for better or worse, this takes a good storyteller.

One danger in this is that stories, even false ones, travel well and far if people find them compelling[7]. Journalists checking themselves against other journalists can lead to a kind of internecine cannibalism, in which a story once reported lives a (usually brief, checkered) life as it is picked up by more media outlets[8]. Like the mythical snake Ourobouros, who eats his own tail, this practice is clearly not only lazy, it’s terminal.

Research Value

I. Writing ‘Exoskeletally’ versus the Tyrrany of the Punchy

 

Fact-checkers will often say that their work is done best when it is invisible. Most editors wholeheartedly agree, to the degree that they often seem to be troubled not only by the traces fact-checking leaves (copy spiked with the dull, dutiful ‘allegedly’s), but by fact-checkers generally.

This contrasts sharply with the prominence afforded research in my student writing, where it is recognized as the one skill on which all propositions depend; indeed scrupulous research could be said to be the very point of scholarship. I found that as a student, the extent of one’s research shouldn’t be concealed behind a frictionless narrative gloss; the evidence of seeking evidence would be expected, and rewarded.

One example of this is the standard inclusion of bibliographies in scholarly papers. Another is exposition devoted to false starts and cold trails. Failure to prove results, or pursuit of a flawed hypothesis, can be discussed in academic writing as a means of demonstrating the depth of the researcher’s inquiry.

I encountered this humbling aspect of academic research while working on my musicology dissertation. I had begun by carefully formulating a hypothesis, a question, and a testing methodology. I then proceeded to demolish my hypothesis.

Dismayed, I asked my advisor how to deal with the sudden collapse of the only quantitative research I’d prepared, certainly my only hope of basing my hypothesis in anything approximating scientific inquiry.

To my surprise, he told me to keep it in; the narrative of my methodology was deemed worthy of inclusion. It trumped the value I had hoped to place on narrative flow, in which my Big Idea went from conjecture to demonstrated fact.

In journalism, such fruitless forays, unless the object of the article is to prove the subject’s elusiveness, are only rarely included[9]. Readers want to know about what you found, not what you didn’t[10].

After years of streamlining my prose, encountering academic writing’s tendency to wear its research on the outside, regardless of the narrative drag this ungainly exterior exposition imposes, felt like a guilty indulgence.

Goals and Longevity

I. The Dischord of the Hemispheres: Division of Labor and Lobes

 

The worst advice I ever received about reporting was from a veteran magazine editor. I asked him about his work as an investigative reporter, and what was the essence of doing it well.

He told me what you have to do is find something you feel is unjust and ought to be revealed, go find everything you can that shows that the issue is real and unjust, and then write about what you found. It was an elegantly succinct encapsulation of why he was the research department’s least favorite editor.

What bothered me about his answer was its lack of rigor; this editor seemed to feel that his job was to prove his hunches. My job as a researcher then reflects my understanding of academic research now: if not to disprove a given story’s basis then to subject it to a thorough interrogation, to read it with and against the grain[11], in order to suss out its soundness.

That adversarial orientation between reporter and fact-checker isn’t inevitable, but it is designed into the system; the research and writing processes are bifurcated into a division of labor based on the ‘two sides of the story’; synthesis and analysis, the skeptic and the believer, or how the two sides of the brain negotiated their distinct native aptitudes for logic and creativity.

Goals and Longevity

II. ‘Consider the Source. Now Repeat’; The First, Second, and Third Rules of Fight Club the Research Department

The best advice I ever received about reporting came from my first boss at a magazine, the well-respected veteran Patricia Singer, then research editor at Vanity Fair. Pat told me simply this: ‘Consider the source’. This is the only counsel I ever truly required in order to do good magazine research.

In essence, when fact-checking I relied on those literally closest to the action; witnesses, or a reliable broker of a witness’s account, i.e. a reliable journalist.

Not to impugn professional scholars, but the difference between those I sought out as a journalist and those I consulted as a student was about proximity to the event. My scholarly research sources were more likely to possess wide knowledge of their subject, but very often they were more distant observers. Generally, they had studied, managed, or monetized the field, practice or person they were consulted on; my fact-checking sources tended to have experienced or been very close to the people or events at hand. In some cases they were those very people.

This proximity is key to what I learned is the most basic element of the archive; the trace of a transaction. For journalists, the first-hand (or second-hand, if necessary) witness account would suffice, and was often preferable, in the short term. And the short term is the journalist’s stock in trade.

At the highest level, scholarly work is expected to contribute to the sum of human knowledge, using rigorous research to ensure it endures in the long term. As a journalist I was expected to get the story first, maybe offer some thoughts on it, and get it out there while it still held news value.

With the luxury of time one could take a longer and deeper perspective, and test hypotheses impartially (or at least more impartially). The process of holding one’s work to the most rigorous standards, comparing it to the best of what has been said and done, and standing on the shoulders of giants was all to the goal of creating something of enduring historical or cultural value.

Journalism demands writers (and fact-checkers) test stories for coherence and veracity. Scholarship demands scholars test hypotheses for coherence and veracity. With peer review as with fact-checking departments, the skepticism part is sometimes outsourced, but long- or short-term, journalists and scholars are both shooting for the truth.

IV. Conclusion

 

My experience first in journalism and then as a postgraduate student has showed me that while journalistic research—that is, the work of reporting, or bearing witness—and academic research methods are different enough that they are often thought of as opposed enterprises, it is more accurate to say that they occupy different stations on a single continuum of endeavor. If the daily news really is only the first draft of history today but fish and chips wrap tomorrow, and scholarship must solemnly test itself against the great canonical works, they do share the imperative to get it right. For journalists, each new day holds the promise of revising the record or rendering yesterday’s verities unimaginable, but they cannot approach the day like Benjamin’s Angel of History, with his back turned toward the past, the ‘storm blowing from Paradise’[12] carrying him into the future. Journalists must face the present, no matter how truncated the depth of vision this orientation affords, or if the storm is blinding, or the unfolding tale appears to be written by a madman. Academic rigor demands the researcher seek out the flaws that will weaken her hypothesis by measuring it against the highest and finest of what is timeless in her field, with the aim of strengthening it—and ultimately adding it to the canon of great work that will be consulted far into the future. But ultimately, despite the differences in scope and purview, I believe that scholars and journalists are reaching for the same goal.

Bibliography  

Benjamin, Walter ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations translated by Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999)

Brintlinger, Angela and Ilya Vinitsky, ed.s, Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture, (Toronto:University ofToronto, 2007)

Douglas, Torin ‘Was the Press Hoodwinked by Sarkozy Rumors?’, 11 March 2010, BBC News online, accessed 24 March 2011 at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8563124.stm

Goldberg, Jeffrey ‘Liar Liar’, 23 April 2007, accessed 24 March 2011 via Nexis at : http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T11563116328&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T11563116331&cisb=22_T11563116330&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=237442&docNo=4

Hitchens, Christopher, ‘Believe Me, It’s Torture’, Vanity Fair, August 2008, accessed via Nexis.com at: http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T11515090375&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T11515090378&cisb=22_T11515090377&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=266942&docNo=14

Hope, Kerin, ‘Professional Passions’, The Economist 24 November 2001, accessed 24 March 2011 via Nexis at: http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T11560955801&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=26&resultsUrlKey=29_T11560955804&cisb=22_T11560955803&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=7955&docNo=28,

Lovering, Tim, unpublished essay for Records and the Transition to Digital at theUniversityofGlasgow, 2005

McCaffery, Damien ‘Collectors and Selectors: Music Canons and Record Collecting Ideologies from Folk to Hip Hop’, MRes Musicology, dissertation for theUniversityofEdinburgh, 2010.

Moore, Michael Roger & Me, 1989, Warner Bros.

Raines, Howell, ‘Egyptians Claim Lost King Tut Treasures’ The New York Times, 10 March 1988, accessed 24 March 2011 at: http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T11563282661&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T11563282664&cisb=22_T11563282663&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=6742&docNo=25

Report on Global Anti-Semitism, United States Department of State, 5 January 2005, accessed at  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/40258.htm 24 March 2011

Shafer, Jack ‘Who Said It First? Journalism is the “First Rough Draft of History.”’ 30 August, 2010, at http://www.slate.com/id/2265540/pagenum/all/#p2, accessed 17 March, 2011

Stoler, Ann Laura Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press, 2009)


[1] Bob Dylan, ‘Visions of Johanna’, Blonde on Blonde,Columbia Records, 1966

[2] Talking Heads, ‘Crosseyed and Painless’, Remain in Light, Sire Records, 1980

[3] The Yale Book of Quotes attributes the phrase to Washington Post President and CEO Philip L. Graham, though some have traced it back to other sources; see Jack Shafer, ‘Who Said It First?

Journalism is the “First Rough Draft of History.”’ 30 August, 2010, at http://www.slate.com/id/2265540/pagenum/all/#p2, accessed 17 March, 2011.

[4] If they had ever forgotten, editors in all corners of the US publishing industry were reminded that blithely assuming your writer is telling the truth can be disastrous. In a striking number of high-profile events in the last decade, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and even Oprah Winfrey have embarrassed themselves by either publishing or promoting writers who lied. The well-documented stories of Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and James Frey have lent a new sense of urgency to the fact-checker’s role: see Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘Liar Liar’, The New Yorker, 23 April 2007, accessed 24 March 2011 via Nexis at : http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T11563116328&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T11563116331&cisb=22_T11563116330&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=237442&docNo=4.

[5] Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture, Angela Brintlinger and Ilya Vinitsky, ed.s, (Toronto:University ofToronto, 2007) pg. 60

[6] Sometimes from whole cloth; see Torin Douglas, ‘Was the Press Hoodwinked by Sarkozy Rumors?’, 11 March 2010, BBC News online, accessed 24 March 2011 at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8563124.stm

[7] One particularly poisonous example of this would be The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fiction from top to tail invented by the Okhrana, the Russia’s Czarist secret police, in 1905, and which still turns up with dismaying frequency all over the world (see this 2005 report from the US Department of State: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/40258.htm). Interesting also to note that the name for such documents—coherent, extended untrue statements that are passed off as truth, like the Protocols—is elusive. ‘False statement’ doesn’t quite cover it, ‘fictitious tract’ doesn’t convey the willful mendacity, within current usage ‘fake’ and ‘forgery’ imply a copied original (though the Protocols are in fact plagiarized from Maurice Joly’s 1864 political satire A Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, in which no Jewish characters appear; see http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007058#related), and ‘lie’ is too diffuse and mundane. ‘Discredited work’ might be the closest we have. Though the qualifier ‘discredited’ can carry a totalitarian ring, it does bear out that any assignation of truth or of falsehood requires consensus, or at least an unwavering standard, to orient itself.

[8] One example of this would be King Tutankhamen’s ‘curse’. In 1922, when archaeologist Howard Carter’s sponsor Lord Carnarvon pledged exclusive access to news from the newly-discovered site of King Tut’s tomb to the Times of London, other newspapers were locked out of this huge international story. After Carnarvon’s death at the tomb in 1923, unscrupulous reporters at rival papers then invented the curse as a way around the Times’ grip on the story (see Kerin Hope, ‘Professional Passions’, The Economist, 24 November 2001, accessed 24 March 2011 via Nexis at: http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T11560955801&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=26&resultsUrlKey=29_T11560955804&cisb=22_T11560955803&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=7955&docNo=28, and Howell Raines, ‘Egyptians Claim Lost King Tut Treasures’ The New York Times, 10 March 1988, accessed 24 March 2011 via Nexis at: http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T11560879381&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T11560879384&cisb=22_T11560879383&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=6742&docNo=13). I worked on a story that re-told this myth as recently as 2006, and the story’s editor winkingly declined to take it out, even after I had tracked down the truth and relayed it to him.

[9] Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger & Me might make for a polemical (and possibly dubious) example of this formula, the successful pursuit of absence. In that film, Moore documents his efforts to secure an interview with Roger Smith, head of General Motors, with his ultimate failure to do so illustrating Smith’s callous remove from those affected by his company’s actions. Another, possibly perverse, example of this was when Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken advocate of US foreign policy in Iraq, voluntarily underwent the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ of water boarding—a method used by US personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan—in order to determine for himself whether or not the practice constituted torture. The title of the resulting article says it all. Christopher Hitchens, ‘Believe Me, It’s Torture’, Vanity Fair, August 2008, accessed via Nexis.com at: http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T11515090375&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T11515090378&cisb=22_T11515090377&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=266942&docNo=14 on 12 March, 2011.

[10] The exception to this general rule is an interesting one in that it bears on the sort of ethical issues some doubt journalism still has much use for. It is revealed in the ‘non-quote’. In mentioning that a subject did or would not offer comment, the reporter is to some degree making a display of due diligence by stating that one was sought but declined or ignored. When an individual or organization refuses the opportunity to offer remarks on an issue, or does not respond to a request for comment, reporters dutifully relay that the subject offered no comment or was not quoted because they could not be reached by their deadline. In an interesting reflection on the science researcher’s requirement to obtain ethical approval for research involving human subjects, the inclusion of a ‘non-quote’ is often a defensive gesture demonstrating good faith and ethical rectitude; in the US, libel law dictates that media outlets must grant ‘equal time’ to opposing viewpoints, or an opportunity for rebuttal from ‘the other side’ of a story. In the history of the often-opportunistic bent of the journalism profession, the notion of equal time has proved to be one of the more robust ethical imperatives to guide the trade’s practitioners.

[11] I owe the metaphor to Ann Laura Stoler; Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), pg 53.

[12] Benjamin, Walter ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999) pg. 258

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About Mienda

Somerville, Brooklyn/Manhattan, Chicago, Glasgow, Cambridge, Philadelphia, here right now.
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One Response to On considering one’s sources

  1. Ether Continuum says:

    So good. A+

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