The Essence of Journalism is a Discipline of Verification
ITS ESSENCE IS A DISCIPLINE OF VERIFICATION
3rd Element of Journalism
The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify something.
The most important ingredient; the crucial element.
The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing or class of things.
Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or
Controlled behavior resulting from disciplinary training; self-control.
A set of rules or methods, as those regulating the practice of a church or monastic order.
The act of verifying or the state of being verified.
A confirmation of truth or authority.
The evidence for such a confirmation.
A formal assertion of validity.
Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information. When the concept of objectivity originally
evolved, it did not imply that journalists are free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information--a
transparent approach to evidence--precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their
Before one can understand the importance of verification in journalism, they need to understand that journalists
are humans just like anyone else with opinions and biases. Why then do we have journalists if they have biases and
opinions? Aren’t they supposed to be clear of biases? We make judgments every day that it is impossible for human
beings to have absolutely opinions. So, it is inevitable that journalists will have opinions and biases. However, when they
follow certain guidelines of newsgathering, they can present the truth to their audiences. A guideline that journalists need
to follow is verification in their reporting. A part of verification is transparency. Transparency is vital because for
journalists, it is the key to credibility.
The method is objective, not the journalist. Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about
sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates
journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment.
But the need for professional method is not always fully recognized or refined. While journalism has developed
various techniques for determining facts, for instance, it has done less to develop a system for testing the reliability of
Journalism is not about simply asserting something is true (or not). It is about following particular methods to verify the
truth (or falsity) of information.
These methods are the core of "objectivity" in journalism. Again, it's not about the journalist (an unavoidably subjective
human being, as we all are). It is about the ways in which the journalist goes about gathering, organizing and
"The method is objective, not the journalist. The key (is) in the discipline of the craft, not the aim." (Elements
of Journalism, p. 74).
FIVE PRINCIPLES OF A “SCIENCE OF REPORTING THAT MAKE UP DISCIPLINE OF VERIFICATION
As journalists, we are encouraged to be more thoughtful in acquiring, organizing, and presenting the news. If we
as journalists use these 5 principles of verification in our reporting, we will establish our credibility. We will
strengthen the relationship between journalists and citizens. As journalists, we rely on the citizens to take what we
say as truth.
"The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification." (Elements of Journalism, p. 71).
1. Do not add anything that did not happen, was not said, or in any other way was not part of the reality.
This speaks for itself. Adding anything extra to your reporting and story is not being honest. By adding
information, one is taking the story out of focus and out of context. When one adds anything that was not there,
they act no different than paparazzi/tabloids and propagandists. “This goes further than ‘never invent’ or make
things up, for it also encompasses rearranging events in time or place or conflating characters or events” (Kovach
& Rosenstiel 90). In other words, what you have gathered, don’t mess with it.
2. Do not deceive the public, your sources, your editors or anyone else.
As journalists, we communicate to the public. Deceiving or confusing audiences goes against the
purpose. Deceiving is also not honest. There is always someone out there who is going to believe what you
say. If one person realizes that you have been misleading them, you lose trust with that person and eventually
with many people. “Fooling people is a form of lying and it mocks the idea that journalism is committed to
truthfulness . . . This is a useful check. How would the audience feel if they knew you moved that sound to
another point in the story to make it more dramatic? Most likely they would feel the move was cheesy” (Kovach
& Rosenstiel 91). No one likes a liar or someone who exaggerates. So, don’t be one yourself. It’s that simple.
3. Be transparent about both motives and methods: "Explain how you learned something and why you
believe it -- so the audience can do the same"
Walter Lippmann said, “There is no defense, no extenuation, no excuse whatsoever, for stating six times
that Lenin is dead when the only information the paper possesses is a report that he is dead from a source
repeatedly shown to be unreliable. The news, in that instance, is not that ‘Lenin is Dead’ but ‘Helsingfors Says
Lenin is Dead.’ And a newspaper can be asked to take responsibility of not making Lenin more dead than the
source of the news is reliable. If there is one subject on which editors are most responsible it is in their judgment
of the reliability of the source” (Lippmann 226). Transparency is revealing to your audience all that you know
about your sources and methods. This principle is considered to be the most important part of verification. Being
transparent gives respect to the audience. This allows the audience to judge the validity of your story and your
sources. With this check on the journalist, it allows less room for errors. It lets your audience know if there was
bias in gathering information and reveals more about if your source is trying to deceive the audience as
well. Explain how you learned something and why you believe it so your audience can do the same.
4. Do your own work.
Rely on your original reporting. Refer to what you have gathered and your sources. Relying on your
original reporting allows for you to be transparent and exercise humility. By doing your own work, you can
double check/verify information you have gathered. It’s much harder to verify information that someone else
gathered because you don’t know their motives and methods. “The more honest the journalist is with the
audience about what he or she knows and doesn’t know, the more trustworthy the journalist is. Level with
people. Make no claims to an omniscience you cannot justify. Acknowledging what is not known is a claim to
more authority, not less” (Kovach & Rosenstiel 100).
5. Be humble. Recognize and acknowledge what you do not know.
Exercise humility. New York Times religion writer Laurie Goodstein told a story of a reporter who
through her mistakes illustrates the importance of exercising humility (Goodstein CCJ Forum 1998). On the steps
of the U.S. Capitol, there was an evangelical revival meeting. She reported that the revival was hostile and quoted
from a Christian radio broadcaster who said “Let’s pray that God will slay everyone in the Capitol.” The reporter
assumed that the broadcaster was meaning “kill” when he said “slay.” However, the reporter was not Pentecostal
and later realized that according to a Pentecostal, “slay someone” means to “slay in spirit, praying that they are
overcome with love for God and Jesus.” It was not only embarrassing for the reporter but the news agency she
represented. True, the reporter acted with common sense but it never hurts to check with your sources if you have
little or no knowledge on the event you’re reporting. Admit it. We don’t know everything. Journalists are
humans too with shortcomings. When one exercises humility, the journalist is letting the audience know that they
will be honest in their newsgathering. Being humble also means that you are open minded to what you collect
because it only takes one source to change your entire story.
TECHNIQUES OF VERIFICATION
The "scientific method" of reporting.
Editors have a special responsibility to question how the reporter knows the information he or she put in
the story -- and to make sure any information that is unverified or based on assumptions is not disseminated to the
Checking for accuracy
The authors offer a checklist that includes not just ensuring the facts are correct but also includes asking
such questions as "Will some people like this story more than they should?" and "Have all the stakeholders been
given a chance to speak here?"
Questioning all assumptions
Journalists should methodically and systematically verify -- and then corroborate -- what people tell them.
Using anonymous sources only with extreme caution
A couple of useful questions for reporters to ask themselves before promising a source confidentiality:
How much direct knowledge does the source have about whatever he or she is telling you about?
What motive might the source have for misleading you, hiding certain information or otherwise "spinning"
the story to his or her advantage?
Merrill uses source relations to show how the philosophies and principles he has discussed throughout his book apply to
a specific, practical, daily concern for journalists.
1. Choosing a Source
A source should be knowledgeable about the subject of the story. This knowledge is the basis of the source's
But journalists also want a source who is articulate and interesting.
And, of course, the source has to be available -- before the journalist's deadline.
Moreover, the journalist has to find not just one source who meets all these criteria but multiple such sources.
After all, the story has more than one side, right?
2. Using Anonymous Sources
Most journalists say that they need to be able to promise a source that his or her name will not be used in
connection with a story. Otherwise, important information that the public needs to know will never be disclosed.
The controversy over Valerie Plame, of course, revolves around this ethical issue. On the legal side, calls have
been renewed for a national "shield law," protecting journalists' right (remember, laws are about rights) to
safeguard information told to them in confidence.
However, anonymous sources raise a number of ethical concerns. Merrill offers these as examples:
The discipline of verification is what distinguishes journalism from other forms of communication. But
information is very difficult to verify if we don't know where it came from.
Anonymous sources put the public at a disadvantage. Pertinent information needed to judge the veracity
or reliability of information is unavailable.
If an anonymous source says something negative, derogatory or just plain false about someone, that
person has little or no recourse other than to offer an opposing view. And how do we, the citizens, then
know who is telling the truth?
The fundamental ethical issue involved with the use of anonymous sources is fairness(and the related
matter of conflicting loyalties).
Should the reporter be fair to the source who has been promised anonymity? To the reader who needs to know the
source of the information? If the interests of those parties conflict ... then what?
3. Selecting and using Quotes
The two basic ethical issues here:
What information provided by a source should the journalist select to include in the story? (That is, what bits
of the "selected truth" should become part of the "reported truth"?)
How will the quotations obtained from the source be presented in the story?
For instance ... should partial quotes (Merrill calls them "patches") be used? If so, how should the context of
the complete quote be preserved? Should direct quotes ever be changed or "cleaned up"? What sorts of
attribution verbs ("said" ... or "snarled"?) be provided?
4. Maintaining a Safe Distance
Journalists walk a fine line in their relationships with sources.
They should not be too friendly; the danger is not only an actual conflict of interest but also the perception
that one exists.
But they also should not unduly adversarial.
"There is no real reason why a source should be a journalist's enemy, and a reportorial demeanor that suggests
that may well cause the source to be uncooperative"
Merrill suggests the best approach to all these source-reporter issues may be an Aristotelian one:
"Whether we are talking about exposed sources or secret sources, direct quotes or indirect quotes, full-disclosure
reporting or selective reporting, we need to realize that these are not either-or questions. Ethical journalists are
free to reason through the ethical dilemmas and come to rational and moderate conclusions"
GUIDELINES FOR DECIDING WHEN IT MIGHT BE OK TO PROMISE A SOURCE THAT HE OR SHE
WILL NOT BE IDENTIFIED IN A STORY
Here are some guidelines for deciding when it might be OK to promise a source that he or she will not be identified in a
story. As with Lambeth's guidelines for deception, the idea here is that journalists should use information without
attributing it to a named source only if these conditions are met:
The material and the story are significant, and the source is vital to the story.
You absolutely cannot persuade the source to speak "on the record.“
You can corroborate the source's information, preferably with at least two other sources.
The material does not involve a personal attack on someone else.
You can explain in your story why the source sought anonymity (if circumstances, particularly privacy