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How do you investigate the story in a world grown hostile to traditional journalism?

How do you investigate the story in a world grown hostile to traditional journalism?

Picture of William Heisel

In an era where facts — not just opinions — are the subject of debate, journalists have found themselves under intense scrutiny.

History buffs know that disinformation injected into the public discourse is nothing new, but most modern journalists came up during a time where reporters were generally trusted and, at times, revered for doggedly pursuing the truth. (The recent film “The Post” was a paean to a pinnacle of that era.)

But now we have this. Pundits like Geraldo Rivera tweeting:

He was referring to Ben Jacobs, the reporter for the Guardian who tried to ask then-congressional candidate Greg Gianforte a question, prompting Gianforte to throw him to the ground. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.

What people may not remember is that Jacobs was trying to ask a question about Republicans’ health care plan. Instead, he ended up being the victim of an assault. Perhaps in a less polarized political moment, people would have mostly agreed that this was a disastrous move for a candidate. Instead, Gianforte won his election to Congress, and some observers either downplayed the incident — like Rivera — or wished Jacobs suffered even worse. Karen Marshall, vice president of programs for Gallatin County Republican Women, said publicly that she would have shot Jacobs had he pursued the same line of questioning with her.

There are many possible responses to this kind of outright hatred of journalists. Traditionally, journalists have largely ignored these kinds of attacks, preferring to stick to their reporting and letting the facts speak for themselves.

At the same time, the truth is an elusive commodity, and we owe it to our audiences to seek it, document it, and share it in a language they can understand.

We also owe it to our audiences to protect that truth at every step in our process. Think about any police drama where an officer is on the stand being scrutinized for everything that happened at the crime scene, during interviews with the suspects, in the evidence locker. Every step in the process of gathering the facts is a potential misstep. Especially when it comes to investigative stories.

I would argue that this is especially true when it comes to health. The kinds of decisions that people make based on health stories can lead to long-term health risks or benefits. They can lead to financially reckless decisions or well-considered investments in health. Consider all the damage done by poor reporting on autism.

How you conduct yourself in reporting a health investigation — or even a basic health beat story like the one Jacobs was trying to report — is now fair game on social media, on talk shows, and everywhere else. That should make you both more cautious but also more excited. To continue the police show metaphor, it’s like you’re a police officer with a camera on you all the time. Accept it and show your best work.

Doing so creates a tension between truth seeking and strict adherence to everything you may have learned in journalism school. I would like to explore strategies for uncovering important facts about health issues while keeping your evidence gathering process fit for prime time.

I would appreciate your ideas! Ping me on Twitter: @wheisel.

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