Some interesting thoughts here from Dr. Burns. I thought I’d share.
Consider this scenario. A reporter gets a tip that seven people have been shot dead in a random attack at a local fast food outlet. The editor wants a story quickly in time for the next edition. The reporter must make many decisions before writing what is, on the face of it, a straightforward news story.
On one level, the journalist’s role is simply to collect and record the facts. The public interest in the events may be assumed to be high, based on news values of proximity, relevance, consequence, timeliness and perhaps unusualness. On another level answering the question “who, what, where, when, why and how?” with certainty is a complex task, capable of being interpreted in more than one way.
In this scenario, the first thing the reporter must do is establish if the tip is true—if the incident actually happened, and if the account given to the reporter is accurate and not exaggerated, because once it is published the story will take on a credibility it didn’t have before. It may also be actionable to suggest that a violent crime has taken place at particular commercial premises if this is not the case. So the first thing the reporter must do is establish for a fact the things already “known”. Without having picked up the telephone to dial the police, the reporter is already engaging in critical reflection as he/she considers the context of the interview about to be undertaken, including the strengths and weaknesses of human sources of information. For example, on one hand a police officer can provide facts drawn from police records and is an authoritative source. On the other, the police officer is an individual whose personal opinions may not be insightful at all, regardless of the certainty with which they are expressed. Hence even an “authoritative” source of information can be completely reliable in one context and completely unreliable in another. It is only by critical reflection in the context of the moment that a reporter can make these judgments.
The reporter must also decide what to ask the interviewee as a means of establishing the facts. Of all the powers exercised by journalists, their decisions about what to include and what to omit from reporting has the greatest influence on the messages received by audiences. For example, is it important to the story to report the identities of the people who have been killed? What would be achieved by reporting this? If the reporter publishes the names of the dead so soon after the event, he or she runs the risk of informing the relatives before the police do which could cause great individual harm. At the same time, publishing the names of the dead could be argued to serve the purpose of reassuring others that their loved ones were not involved.
During the course of the interview, the reporter is constantly reflecting on the information being collected, in the light of the reporter’s own perceptions about the honesty of the interviewee and presence of an other agendas in the interview. How will the journalist distinguish between speculation and informed comment? As part of that process, the journalist must also consider if other sources are available to verify the information already collected. Is there any information that can’t be verified? For example, should the reporter include a second-hand account of shouting said to have been heard during the incident? If he/she decided this information was too important to the story to leave it out, the decision would value the dramatic narrative of the incident over any legal action that might follow the crime. All the same, the journalist must consider the question “Could this choice be defended in court?” Some facts can be independently verified by seeking out physical evidence. Are sources such as other media, databases, websites and books intrinsically more credible than others? Why? This scenario illustrates the importance of self-efficacy in journalism because in practice so much depends on the journalist’s competence in critical reflection. Once the interview is completed, the reporter must again consider the question “What are the relevant facts?” in light of their own professional understanding of the interests and priorities of the audience.
~ Lynette Sheridan Burns, Understanding Journalism