The Hierarchy of Accuracy

Some facts, quotes, assertions and color are more reliable than others.

The stuff that comes from an eyewitness is better than that which is second-hand.

The stuff that you know for yourself is better than the stuff someone else supposedly checked out … or did they?

This idea was crystallized by Mike Oreskes when he was Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. He said that as he looked back at the lessons of the Monica Lewinsky scandal for the Times, he thought the most important was, “Do your own work.”
Beware of the idea that you have to post a story because it’s “out there” — floating around.

In a sense, Oreskes is suggesting a hierarchy of verification. At the top of that is the stuff you have verified yourself — from sources with direct knowledge — and they are better than sources who do not have direct knowledge.

The Times, as an example, had a “third party witness” story in the Lewinsky scandal. It was slated to go. The paper was laid out. It was 6 p.m. Early edition deadline was getting close.

The reporters who had worked the story, one of whom was John Broder, walked into Oreskes’ office and said, “Mike, we have been thinking this through, and we realized our sources are second-hand. They are not the people who saw the president and Lewinsky together. At best they are people who talked to people who saw them together … We really wonder if that is good enough to call the president a liar.”

Oreskes called New York and said he thought they should hold the story. New York argued with him. The editors said, “you know this story is going to get out.” But Oreskes held firm, under significant pressure.

It was a pivotal moment. Not only was the third party witness story wrong, it became a turning point in the Times’ coverage. Editors, moreover, were grateful for Oreskes’ decision and thereafter stuck more closely to what The Times could verify for itself with first-hand sources.

Taking this even further, there is a hierarchy of what can be proved in a more general sense.

You can argue that journalism is first concerned with the more external world. The president said these words. The car came from this direction and hit the other car here.

Here journalism is on pretty solid ground.

The more interior world — which includes things such as motive (why did the president say these words, why did the government choose this policy, or why did Osama bin Laden hate America) — is necessarily more speculative.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and former API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel who previously co-chaired the committee.