Journalism basics, part 2

This is the second of my occasional series of journalism basics for online news folks. Today's lesson:


This is an old saw and one that I've heard credited to Chicago newsies. What it means is: Don't trust what people tell you, even people you believe to be trustworthy. People lie, people get things wrong, people repeat untrue information and present it as fact, and people flat out don't know what they're talking about. Check out what they tell you.

What should you check out? Everything from the simple (please, spell names correctly) to the complex (is that "widely cited study" really accurate? Do those budget figures add up? Did the city councilor really say what you heard he/she said?). You'd be surprised how often things turn out not to be what they seem.

One example: Back in the 1980s, stories began circulating in the news media that reported shocking numbers of children going missing every year in the U.S. Reports placed the number at 1.5 million and up with 50,000 kids said to be abducted annually.

People panicked. Photos of missing children began appearing on milk cartons with the caption, "Have you seen me?" The kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh became a national story and a TV movie.

Unfortunately, the numbers were wrong. Reporters Diana Griego and Louis Kilzer of the Denver Post looked into the story and found the numbers of missing and abducted kids were inflated. Very inflated (94 to 95 percent of the missing kids were later found).

Children's advocates had initially quoted the figures. Reporters then repeated the numbers without checking on their accuracy. Other reporters picked them up from those stories and repeated them again. Once the figures were cited in story after story they quickly became gospel and were re-reported as fact. And no one stopped to check them.

Finally, two reporters had the brains to ask a simple question: Is this correct? And it wasn't.

So, always question what you're told. Look for corroborating information. Check sources (and ask yourself if the source is truthful. Do they have an ax to grind?). Don't assume things to be correct. Make sure they are!

Next lesson: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

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