Saturday, September 19, 2009

Attribution: Reader's friend, writer's foe?

As journalists, we read critically. We want to know how a reporter got those minute details or that compelling quote. But are readers all that different? Do they just assume that whatever is written in an article is fact and never question where the reporter got it from? I doubt it.

The challenge for journalists is figuring out how we provide enough transparency to ensure that our audience trusts us without resulting to bulky, confusing attributions and explanations that take away from our narratives. Andrea Lorenz, a Mizzou grad, explored this issue in "When You Weren't There: How Reporters Recreate Scenes for Narrative," published in River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. (You'll have to enter your Mizzou username and ID for free access to this journal and article. Thanks to Dr. Berkley Hudson for sharing this with his Literature of Journalism class.)

I was surprised to hear the lengths to which reporters went to confirm the details of the scenes they were recreating. Tom French had a bird specialist listen to a recording from a funeral service before he wrote that the people attending the service could "hear a sparrow chirping." Others used floor plans, medical records and doctors' notes, etc. Eric Adler of the Kansas City Star spoke with every girl who tried out for a cheerleading squad and the coach to confirm the details he included in a story about an overweight cheerleader.

Of course, readers were never told any of this, and including these reporting procedures in the narrative would have been distracting. So what can journalists do to build readers' trust in their narrative accounts? The Web has certainly provided an opportunity for reporters to include background on their reporting. Not only would this help readers, but it would also help young reporters.

Once, I editing a feature at Vox and couldn't find any notes from the reporter that supported her lead. I assumed she had just forgotten to include them. I called a family member of the person being described, and he confirmed the facts. However, he mentioned that they were a little exaggerated, but he didn't want to upset the writer by having her rewrite it. When I spoke to the reporter, I asked her if she had witnessed this opening scenes. She hadn't. I asked if someone had recounted this opening scene to her. No one had. She had "recreated" this scene based on scraps of information told to her by this person's family members and based on her experience observing her grandfather who was suffering from the same illness as the person she described. She called it recreating a scene, said reporters did it all the time and argued with me that it wasn't unethical, even though the scene, exactly how she had described it, had probably never happened. (Sorry for being so vague, but I don't want to out this reporter.)

As young reporters we want to use the fancy, attention-getting techniques of veterans but sometimes fall short of knowing how much legwork goes into it. Apparently, even this source didn't understand that just because a story sounds good or maybe even representative, the facts must be accurate. We can't describe something that never really happened.

Lorenz provides several helpful lists:
  • Common attributes that ensure accuracy: access, source cooperation, trust between reporter and source and a harmony of source accounts. "Any variation of the four attributes resulted in an interrupted narrative, unless the writers found tools to smooth the story."
  • Roy Peter Clarks' test that reporters should put stories through before publication: Have I checked it out enough to have confidence in the material?, Will the truth of this story stand up against the toughest prosecutorial editing?, What do we have to tell readers about what we know and how we know it to give the story credibility in their eyes?
  • Three reasons for shift to greater transparency: Scandal fatigue, technology (more space for reporting notes) and Pulitzer envy (Clark describes this as the "reluctance in recent years for juries to give awards to stories that they're not really sure about.")

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