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Island of Doubt: Why you should distrust — but not dismiss — your sources

Island of Doubt: Why you should distrust — but not dismiss — your sources

Picture of William Heisel
[Photo by Matthew Wilkinson via Flickr.]

I was editing a story when my eyes stopped on a dollar sign.

The story was built around a powerful anecdote. A man suffering from a horrible disease was having trouble paying his bills. Not a unique story in America. But what made this story so compelling was how much he had to shell out annually for the drugs to keep him alive.

The amount seemed alarmingly high, and so I started calling pharmacies to find out what would be the absolute most I would have to pay — with insurance, without insurance — for the same drugs. Even at double the recommended monthly supply, the prices were nowhere near what the man had told the reporter.

So I was presented with three choices, really. 1) Just take the drug price out of the story and move on. 2) Tell the reporter to confront the source about an apparently false statement. 3) Ask the reporter to double-check every fact in the story and to try to get documents to back up those facts.

The first choice is a choice that editors and reporters often make. Something ends up in your notebook that just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t mean that everything in your story is wrong, but it does mean that one particular detail you picked up has the ability to undermine the rest of your piece. It could be a date that doesn’t make sense with the rest of the timeline. It could be something that seems exaggerated for effect, the kind of story someone might tell in a bar with friends, but instead they’ve told it to you and you are about to present this fish tale as fact. It could be in essence an alibi, something that the source is using to obscure another detail about themselves because they know that they are about to have their name, photo, and many other details projected out into the world for everyone to see and scrutinize. The editor’s first choice is not necessarily a bad choice, especially as news organizations shovel more and more content from notebooks to social media with less time and ability to verify accuracy.

The second choice — accusing the source of lying — is the hardest choice and, I think, should be reserved for the types of stories where the trustworthiness of the source relates directly to the story. For example, if I am writing about a surgical error that led to a death at a hospital, and I track down a nurse who can provide me with records about what happened and other people to talk to who can describe the scene in the surgical suite, I may not care if the nurse also cheated on her timesheet one week. If the incoming ownership group taking over that hospital and promising to make it more responsive to community needs includes people who have had to pay settlements over lawsuits claiming fraud in their business dealings, that’s a fact worth addressing with the source. In short, people are human. They don’t even spell their own kids’ names right half the time.

The third choice — sort of trust but really verify — is somewhere in between the first two choices. It requires a lot of effort and discretion, but it does not require you to shame and blame your source, at least not at first. You might think that reporters naturally just write down notes and verify all of them as they go. But it is very easy to become enamored with a source. The story is so good. It packs such an emotional punch. It perfectly illustrates the problem you are trying to describe. So you just take everything verbatim and present that to your audience uncritically.

That would have been the wrong thing to do in this case. Instead, by asking the source to verify a range of details, the reporter made the story more robust. The reporter told me later:

When reporters get too invested in their sources, and everything seems to align so well, you almost put up blinders with what seem like small details in this huge mess they're dealing with. That's what happened with that story. I got so caught up with the narrative that I missed that the detail seemed off. It was a big lesson for me to slow down in reporting these types of stories and triple-check everything.

The Talking Heads have a great song, “Crosseyed and Painless,” that talks about “the island of doubt.” I am going to encourage all of you over a series of posts to take a trip to the Island of Doubt. Frequently and with purpose. I am going to explore difficult sources, half-truth tellers, vision-impaired eye witnesses, willful amnesiacs, and agenda hiders. I am going to offer a few thoughts on how to handle those types of sources and how to avoid putting yourself in a situation where one source or one detail from one source undermines all your hard work.

[Photo by Matthew Wilkinson via Flickr.]

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