Pages Navigation Menu

Seeking journalistic truth

Helping student journalists to seek the truth

by Kristin Taylor

What does it mean to be truthful? Is truthfulness accurate numbers and statistics? Multiple points of view? Context to help the reader understand the time and place and other circumstances? All of the above?

Journalistic truth “means much more than mere accuracy,” according the seminal text “The Elements of Journalism” by Kovach and Rosenstiel. “It is a sorting-out process that takes place between the initial story and the interaction among the public, newsmakers and journalists.”

In other words, the facts — as best as they can be determined by reliable, reputable sources — are where a good journalist starts. “If the foundation is faulty,” they write, “everything else is flawed. A debate between opponents arguing with false figures or purely on prejudice fails to inform. It only inflames. It takes the society nowhere.”

It is not, however, where a good journalist ends. “It is more helpful, and more realistic,” they continue, “to understand the truth we seek or can expect from journalism to be a process — or a continuing journey toward understanding — that begins with the first account of an event and builds over time.”

This kind of truthfulness is not easy. It means paying attention for a sustained period of time, making connections, re-evaluating previously held opinions, and constantly seeking new information.

So how do we teach our students to pursue this deeper kind of truth?

One good strategy to teach “truth as process” reporting is to encourage students to create dynamic story folders — either digitally or with hard copies — where they can update information, add research and keep source notes throughout the year.

Story folders will help them to think about their article topics as ongoing and changing rather than set in a single view of the truth when they first wrote them. Have them update these folders throughout the year with new information so they can return to the story and create follow-up content as new perspectives or developments emerge.

To ensure they are getting the truth from their sources, students also need to be strong interviewers. This Poynter article by Chip Scanlan gives some great tips to improve their interviewing skills.

Being truthful means not simply repeating what authority figures say during their interviews, but rather holding those figures’ statements to the same level of scrutiny and verification as they would any other source. This part of truth-seeking is especially difficult for our student journalists, who may feel intimidated by adults in the community or who may fear retaliation from school officials. Marina Hendricks’ lesson about seeking truth from power is a good place to start this conversation, develop strategies and role play tough potential interviews.

Finally, truthfulness means admitting when journalists make mistakes, as Time reporter Zeke Miller did when he incorrectly tweeted that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Although it is good Miller retracted and corrected this statement within an hour, it would have been better if he’d fact-checked the inflammatory claim in the first place.

Sharing cautionary tales like Miller’s will help students to understand the importance of verification and also model how responsible journalists acknowledge and correct their mistakes. If you don’t already have a specific error correction policylaid out in your staff manual, it’s time to create one.

Even the strongest journalist struggles to pin down the truth, but these strategies will help our students circle ever closer as they report, create and follow up on each story.

 

Seeking truth

Guideline:

Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Scholastic journalists should be honest and in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Social Media Post

Getting to the truth is every ethical journalist’s goal, but it isn’t easy. Here are some strategies to help student reporters 

Reasoning/suggestions:

To prevent accusations of “fake news,” how can student journalists ensure they are getting to the truth?

Suggestions:

  • Explore the subjective nature of truth using Megan Fromm’s lessonto help students see how perspective alters “truth” and discuss how this concept connects to journalism.
  • Encourage students to create separate digital story folders to store information related to each piece of news content they create. Have them update these folders throughout the year with new information so they can return to the story and create follow-up content as new perspectives or developments emerge.
  • Review interviewing strategies to ensure students prepare, ask good questions, listen critically and follow up with each source.
  • Use Marina Hendricks’ lessonto discuss the difficulties of interviewing authority figures. Role play these potentially tough interviews to help students prepare.
  • Review the importance of fact-checking and verification and ensure students have processes they can use to hold their sources and each other accountable.
  • Create an error correction guideline students will follow when they make mistakes.

Resources:

Lesson: Journalists as professional skeptics, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Quick Hit: Importance of verification, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Lesson: Sifting through the sources: how to really know which source has the ‘truth’, John Bowen, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Lesson: How to seek truth from power, Marina Hendricks, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

A lesson on truth and obligation in journalism, Megan Fromm, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Quick Hit: Correcting Errors, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Avoiding the Suits, NewsLab

How journalists can become better interviewers, Chip Scanlan, Poynter

Tips for successful investigative journalism, Media Helping Media

 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.