In Chapter Six you were introduced to dealing with sources and the information they provide. In this chapter we will work on related issues: how to distinguish fact from allegation, and how to help your audience recognize each.
Tori Baxter came out of J-school thinking that her job as a journalist was to gather and present facts. With enough facts, she thought, each story could answer the fundamental questions she always keeps in mind: What do I know? How do I know it? When she was fresh out of school it never occurred to her that reporting a fact might not be the same as reporting the truth. In just three years, she has come to learn how tough distinguishing between fact and truth can be.
Certainly, without facts we can’t hope to find the truth. But for journalists, that raises a couple of questions: Is truth just an accretion of facts? If that’s the case, how do we know when we’ve gathered enough facts to constitute truth?
There is a related problem as well: the difference between what we’ll call news fact and truth. Here’s an example, similar to one we brought up in an earlier chapter: Say during a heated Valleydale City Council meeting recently one council member accused the city manager of adultery. Tori was there, she heard the comment. It is a news fact that the council member made the accusation. But is it true? And ought it to be reported, if Tori can’t determine yet whether it is true or not?
The first test, before Tori even sets about trying to determine whether the accusation is true, is whether it has any relevance to her audience at all. It might not be worth reporting, even if it is true. Second, if the matter does have some relevance to an audience, is the news fact that one council member made the allegation in public so important that it should be reported, even if the truth of it can’t yet be determined? Third, does the target of the allegation have an opportunity to respond? Fourth, what was the context for the remark? A gratuitous insult during a heated exchange over a different matter? A pointed diatribe over the city manager’s fitness for office? Long-standing bad blood between the two?
Often, by carefully reporting the context for a fact or facts, we can get closer to the truth, even when we can’t yet determine whether the original assertion is true. In that sense, an accretion of what we know can help us get to where we want to be. We provide context by gathering and presenting additional relevant facts. It might be overly simple to say that truth is facts in context, but it’s a start. For examples of how we would write a news fact and news truth, see Box 8.1.
Box 8.1 News Fact, News Truth
1. News fact: Valleydale City Council Member Eaton Wise last night accused City Manager Don Prentice of having an adulterous affair with an employee of the city finance department.(That Council Member Wise made the accusation is a fact.)
2. News truth: Valleydale City Council Member Eaton Wise last night accused City Manager Don Prentice of having an adulterous affair with an employee of the city finance department. Wise, who has previously accused Prentice of mismanaging city money, has offered no evidence to support either accusation. Prentice has never previously been publicly accused of adultery. (The truth of the accusation remains to be determined. Meanwhile, the news fact of Council Member Wise’s accusation has been placed in context.)
Notice in the example in Box 8.1 that news truth does not include everything we know about the incident – what other council members were doing at that point, what Eaton Wise, the accuser, and Don Prentice, the city manager, were wearing, where in the room each was sitting, and so forth. More importantly, we are not yet able to say whether the accusation itself is true or not. So now the reporter must ask herself: How do I know when I’ve got enough facts to tell the truth?
Most philosophers recognize that achieving a pure truth or a whole truth is impossible. What we as journalists are after is enough truth to keep our audience served appropriately. That’s why we never tell everything we know in news stories, even if we were to have the time and space to do so. Some facts are simply not necessary to the task at hand, even though they might arguably contribute to a complete truth. The focus of most stories is narrow enough that we do not need to show everything we know about everybody in the story or every issue it addresses. For example, in a crime story in which a suspect is still at large, the physical description of the suspect — height, weight, race, clothing — is important. But in a story about a city council meeting in which a citizen makes comments, a physical description of the speaker is almost never relevant.
For journalists, then, the challenge is to report enough to convey a truthful account of the event or issue at hand and the way it affects the people involved. As we discussed in Chapter One, that involves a willingness by the journalist to make responsible judgments about what ought to be included in a story.
Often, when news people are accused of distortion, it’s because someone represented in a story thought that more about him or his views on an issue should have been included, or that someone else’s position should not have been. Again, the journalist needs to consider whether her audience was appropriately served by the decisions she made.
When we decide to report a news fact whose truth cannot be immediately determined, we owe our audience — and the people involved — two duties: We must provide as much relevant context for the news fact as we can, and we must follow up on our initial reporting, so that even if we can’t report in today’s story whether the news fact is true, our audience can expect us to do so in the future.
As with all the other issues involved in responsible reporting, it isn’t enough that we understand the difference between a news fact and the truth. We must write our stories so that the difference is clear to our audiences. Choose your words carefully. (See Box 8.2.) Watch for the ones that may sound compelling but leave an unfair impression. They protect neither you nor the subject of the story.
For example, news people constantly refer to someone who has been charged with murder as “the accused killer.” Think about that. To call someone “an accused killer” is simply to say he is a killer who has been accused. Calling the city manager “the alleged adulterer” is the same. How can we use words more fairly?
In these examples, we can use the noun or verb form of “accuse” and “allege” to put the emphasis on the accusation or allegation rather than on something we cannot yet verify. “The council member defended himself against allegations of adultery” at least puts the emphasis on the fact that it is an allegation at this point. Similarly, “He is accused of killing” puts the emphasis on the accusation. We should avoid using “accused” and “alleged” as adjectives. Similarly, “he was arrested for killing” tells your audiences that someone was arrested because he killed someone. Guilt is for a jury to determine. It is fairer to say “he has been charged with . . . ,” and report the charge or charges.
When we are confronted with the necessity to report allegations of distasteful or seamy conduct, we are often inclined to try to soften the language we use. But as good as our intention might be, it could well cause harm. Once we’ve made the decision to share information with our audiences, it’s usually better to let our audiences know specifically what is alleged than to resort to euphemisms that create confusion or ambiguity. Sometimes the euphemism makes the allegation sound even worse than it is.
Box 8.2 Accused, Alleged, Charged with
Avoid saying: Instead, use:
The alleged killer He is charged with killing. . . .
If no charges have been filed, say:
He is alleged to have killed. . . .
He is facing allegations that he killed . . . .
The accused rapist He is charged with raping. . . .
If no charges have been filed, say:
He is accused of raping. . . .
He is facing allegations that he raped . . . .
We must avoid using confusing institutional terms such as “news fact” in our stories. In the example we’ve been using, if we determine that the comment bears reporting, we would be careful to call it an “allegation” or “accusation” until we could determine whether it was true.
It’s hard to imagine how an accusation of adultery could be relevant to the business of the city council, but there are times when unsubstantiated allegations made at a public meeting cannot be ignored. Sometimes they occupy the entire focus of the meeting. Sometimes they have a direct bearing on the welfare of citizens. When that is the case, it’s important to remember that nature abhors a vacuum. We must consider whether, in following our first instincts to ignore unsubstantiated accusations, we are allowing rumor to take the place of responsible reporting in the community.
For example, when a substantial part of a city council meeting is taken up with accusations against the city manager, we can bet that those accusations will be talked about around town the next day even if we don’t report what happened. The difference is that the information will be passed along second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-hand, and so on, until what the 30th person hears will be an embellished or distorted version of what was an unsubstantiated allegation to begin with.
In this case, it is better for us as journalists to report what was really said and to place it in as much context as we think necessary. By doing so we help neutralize the rumor mill, and we enter into a tacit agreement with our audience that we will pursue the matter until we can determine the truth of it. That’s substantially different from rushing into print or on the air with a story simply because “the guys down the street already ran it, so we’re off the hook,” and the decision to run a story to neutralize the rumor mill should never be entered into lightly.
Finally, you might be wondering whether our judgment will be influenced by the possibility that publishing or broadcasting such accusations could leave us open to a libel or slander lawsuit. Statements made in public meetings or proceedings, or records of them — a legislative session, a city council meeting, a trial transcript or minutes of a council meeting, for example — are said to be privileged: That is, they give news media immunity from lawsuits provided we have fairly and accurately reported their substance. So when it comes to reporting what goes on in public proceedings, you’ll have to rely on your own judgment, not on legal constraints.
Let’s look at some strategies for distinguishing facts from allegations (See Box 8.3):
1. Remember that direct observation is best. But beware of the possibility that your own observations can be wrong or out of context.
2. Get sources on the record. That helps our audiences judge how much faith to give information. We also identify the source so that the source is held accountable for what he or she tells us. That makes it less likely that the source will lie or make unsubstantiated accusations. Those transgressions are easier to commit if we allow a source to make them anonymously.
3. Do your homework. For each event or issue you are called on to report, learn as much as you can about it and the players. A source who knows you have done your homework is less likely to lie to you or make wild claims.
4. Listen carefully, so you are sure you understand what you are being told, the significance of the information, and the level of observation the source is reporting from.
5. Ask questions based on the careful listening that you do. Always be prepared to ask a source how he or she knows what he or she claims to know.
6. Look for ways to document a source’s assertion. But keep in mind that documents can be wrong or be lies, too. Sometimes the document is generated by the same person making the allegation.
Box 8.3 Strategies for Distinguishing Fact from Allegation
1. Strive for direct observation, but put your own observations to the test as well.
2. Keep sources on the record. Doing that gives your audience the opportunity to judge the credibility of the source, and it makes the source accountable.
3. Background is important. Learn as much as you can about issues and players.
4. Make sure you understand what you are being told, and how sources know what they say they know.
5. If you’re not sure what a source means, ask.
6. Find documentary support for allegations if you can. But remember that documents can be wrong, too, and that one definition of allegation is an unsupported accusatory statement.
7. When you write about facts and allegations, take pains to distinguish them. Choose your words carefully. Many words have connotative – commonly understood — as well as denotative — dictionary — meanings.
8. Avoid using accused and alleged. To call someone an accused killer is simply to say he is a killer who has been accused. The alleged adulterer is the same.
9. Don’t jump the gun. Write about arrests, not suspects. Police talk to many people who are never arrested.
10. When you write about an arrest don’t convict. Say: He has been charged with . . . , not: He was arrested for . . . .
11. Avoid euphemisms or vague language, even when writing about distasteful allegations. Euphemisms create ambiguity, which makes everything worse.
12. Make your words serve the facts, not the other way around. Don’t outrun your facts in order to use a snazzier word.
13. Attribute information carefully, to named sources.
14. Where there is ambiguity, clear it up if you can. If you can’t, acknowledge it, so your audience knows you are not being intentionally vague.
Now some strategies for showing audiences what you have learned:
1. The words you use to report facts and allegations are critical. Choose them carefully. Beware of the ones that protect neither you nor the subject of the story. Be careful also of connotative meanings. Many words are understood by many to carry more than their dictionary – or denotative – meaning. For example, the denotative meaning of deny may simply be to declare untrue. But connotatively it can be loaded, conveying the impression that someone is refuting an accusation that is true. Similarly, while one denotative meaning of admit is simply to acknowledge as true, a more common denotative and connotative meaning is to confess to guilt or a mistake. Where that isn’t the case, a less loaded word would be acknowledge.
2. Think of “accused” and “alleged” as invisible modifiers. Using them is the same as not using them. To call someone “an accused killer” is simply to say he is a killer who has been accused. “The alleged adulterer” is the same. Use the noun or verb form to put the emphasis on the accusation or allegation rather than on something we cannot yet verify. “The mayor defended himself against allegations of adultery” at least puts the emphasis on the fact that it is an allegation at this point. Similarly, “He is accused of killing” puts the emphasis on the accusation. Do not use “accused” and “alleged” as adjectives.
3. If you are dealing with a criminal case, it is better to avoid naming a suspect until an arrest has been made. If we didn’t know that before, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing case should have taught us. FBI agents leaked the name of someone they said was a suspect. His name became a household word, linked to the bombing. He was never charged, and the FBI later dropped him as a suspect. But the damage was done.
4. When charges have been filed, say that: “He has been charged with . . . ,” and report the charge or charges. To say, “He was arrested for killing . . . ” tells your audience that he killed somebody and was arrested for it.
5. When you think it’s necessary to report distasteful conduct or allegations of it, avoid euphemisms and ambiguity. Once we’ve made the decision to publish, it’s usually better to let our audiences know specifically what is alleged than to resort to euphemisms that create confusion or ambiguity. Sometimes the euphemism makes the allegation sound even worse than it is.
6. Focus on facts first, words second. That means we let the words serve the facts, not the other way around. It might have seemed more stylish to say “President Clinton’s alleged illicit affair with Monica Lewinsky.” Until we knew it was fact, it was also patently unfair.
7. Attribute carefully, including naming all sources.
8. Clear up ambiguity. If you can’t, alert your audiences to it, so that they won’t jump to conclusions. They will also realize that you know the ambiguity is there, and that you are not being deliberately or carelessly vague.
You already have some context for the exercise that follows, and some knowledge of the players involved (see Chapters One and Three). Keep that in mind as you write a story from this city council meeting. And as your material gets more complex and your stories get longer, continue to remember your impact, elements, words process.
Use judgment in selecting quotes. You will need to balance the value of using strong quotes to show the personalities and emotions of the council members against offending your audience with profanity, obscenity or crude characterizations.
Write the story first for the newspaper, then as a 30-second RDR.
The city council has several standing committees that consider the business of various city agencies and departments and make recommendations to the full council for action. The Finance Committee, chaired by a City Council member, is charged with weighing budgetary matters and matters of policy presented to it by the finance director or city manager. It is not charged with the day-to-day running of the department. That is the job of the finance director and his or her designees. (The city manager is the finance director’s supervisor.) If, however, a city employee’s conduct is in question, the committee may recommend any of a variety of courses of action to the full council, including dismissal. The Finance Committee does not itself have the power to fire the city manager or any of his department heads or employees. Council Members Wise and Bullard are not on the Finance Committee, so their interest in and claims about knowledge of the city manager’s involvement with the finance department are curious. Assume the following happened at the end of a routine City Council meeting last night. It is now October, one month after the events described in Chapters One and Three.
Mayor Hostetter: Anything else before we adjourn?
Council Member Wise: I do have one matter, Mr. Mayor, if I may.
Mayor Hostetter: Sure, Eaton, go ahead.
Wise: Thank you. For some time we have attempted to discuss some fiscal irregularities with the city manager. After one in-depth discussion two months ago, after which he promised to investigate, we have heard nothing, and now he refuses to meet with us. We are gravely concerned for the people of Valleydale. This is not appropriate stewardship of their hard-earned tax dollars.
Mayor: Hold on, Eaton. I thought we had gotten beyond all this when Don met with you. Everybody reported back to us that everything had been explained. Then four weeks ago you tried to get us to fire him, and now you’re saying that somebody’s got his hand in the till?
Wise: Certainly not, sir. I am saying that there are irregularities in the city budget that the city manager refuses to explain or address. We have recently lost our finance director, who resigned in frustration over Mr. Prentice’s mismanagement. We think these irregularities should be aggressively pursued.
Council Member Chipps: Well, I’m just a dumb country boy, but that sounds to me like a beating-around-the-bush way of saying somebody’s got his hand in the till. I don’t remember the finance director giving us any such reason for leaving. If you’re gonna make accusations like that against Don Prentice, Eaton, you’d better be damned sure they’re right.
Council Member Bullard: Believe me, Mr. Wise would not be raising these serious matters in public if we didn’t have solid evidence to support them. Why, I can’t make heads or tails of the city budget, and I studied bookkeeping for a year at community college.
Mayor: Okay, folks, then I guess it’s time to make your case. Do you have any particulars?
Wise: Indeed I do, but this public forum is not the place for that. I wouldn’t want to embarrass the city manager unnecessarily.
Council Member Clark: Oh, for God’s sake, Eaton. Same deal as last time: First you make all kinds of wild allegations in public, then when it comes time to put up or shut up, you retreat behind “I don’t want to embarrass Mr. Prentice.” Be fair. Let’s hear what you’ve got. If you can back it up, let’s not leave the citizens in suspense any longer. If you’ve got nothing, let’s exonerate the man.
Bullard: Let me hasten to say here that one of the reasons we would rather discuss this in an executive session is that it gets very, very — uh — messy. My understanding is that it has less to do with Mr. Prentice’s performance than with attempts to protect the job of someone in the finance department, a young woman who should be let go, but who is, ahh . . . .
Chipps: Oh, that’s great. Now you’re saying Don’s bonking some little girl in the finance department, and she’s the one with her hand in the till? But now Alice can’t get rid of her because this little bimbo would squeal on Don? Oh, hell. I just noticed all the reporters out there scribbling. (Turns toward the press table.) That was all off the record, you guys. You can’t print none of that.
Clark: I can’t understand why the Finance Committee doesn’t know about any of this if there is any substance to it. Even if we’ve got a little Melrose Place going on over there, we can’t be talking about much money, can we? I mean, how much can one little clerk get her hands on?
Wise: Au contraire, Mr. Clark, my understanding is that we are talking about a substantial sum of unaccounted-for funds. And allow me to say that I am offended by the crude way Council Member Chipps has characterized the city manager’s relationship with the employee, but I must reluctantly admit that he has understood Council Member Bullard and myself correctly.
Council Member Mutispaugh: Excuse me. As Finance Committee chair I would just like to make it clear on the record that, as Mr. Clark says, we have not participated in any of this. I am not at all comfortable with the accusations being made and —
Council Member Jefferson: So you’re saying they’re not true, Louise?
Mutispaugh: No, I have no idea whether they’re true or not. I’m just not comfortable –
Jefferson: Well, hell, why don’t you either look into it or resign from the committee, then? You can’t just try to ignore all this. If you think there’s something there, find out. If you think Eaton and Rondah are trying to crucify Don Prentice again, say so. If you can’t stand the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen.
Mayor: Good job, Willie. Now you’ve made her cry.
Jefferson: I’m sorry if I’ve upset you, Louise, but —
Clark: Mr. Mayor, we’re getting pretty far afield here. May I make a suggestion?
Mayor: Oh, by all means.
Clark: How about we all catch our breath for a few more weeks. I’d like the Finance Committee to look into this formally, talk to employees, find out what kind of bee Eaton and Rondah really have in their bonnet, have an outside auditor look at the books, and report back to us formally if they come up with anything. Not more wild accusations, but the real deal, with evidence, if there is any. I know that leaves you in limbo for a few more weeks, Don, but can you live with that?
City Manager Prentice: Mr. Clark, I would welcome a formal investigation to clear the air. I must say, though, that I think squandering the taxpayers’ money to hire an outside auditor is completely unnecessary at this time. We ought to be able to keep our own house in order, particularly since this internal investigation will turn up nothing.
Mayor: Yeah, I see no need to call in auditors at this point.
Clark: Hang on. I’d like to get a vote on that so we —
Mayor: Oh, shucks, we don’t need a vote, do we?
Jefferson: No, I’m not willing to spend money on auditors at this point, not when the Finance Committee hasn’t looked at it yet.
Mayor: Are you making the request for an outside auditor in the form of a motion, Bud?
Clark: Yeah, I so move.
Mayor: Second? Anyone? Motion dies for lack of a second. Sorry, Bud, the council seems to want the Finance Committee to do the investigating. Okay, Louise, get your committee cracking on that report. Can you have it ready in four weeks, that’s two council meetings from now?
Mutispaugh: We certainly can.
Mayor: Good. This thing needs to be cleared up publicly. That should make everybody more careful about making a case they can prove. Meanwhile, I will rely on the news media to handle this issue responsibly. I caution everyone here that we have no hard evidence at this point. Until we do, I don’t see much of a story.
Following the meeting, you interview Wise and Prentice briefly:
Q: Mr. Wise, what is your evidence against the city manager?
Wise: I am not prepared to discuss it publicly at this time.
Q: Financial mismanagement, embezzlement, inappropriate sexual behavior?
Wise: As much as I am sure you would love for me to, I will not respond to your taunting. We will share our proof with the Finance Committee.
Q: Did that proposal for an outside audit give you any problems?
Wise: You are baiting me. I’ll not rise to it.
Q: Do you support Council Member Bullard’s allegations of sexual misconduct?
Wise: This interview is over.
Q: Don, can you respond to the accusations?
Prentice: Can I? Yes. Will I? No. Except to say that the fact that the allegations are false leaves me some legal options, and I intend to explore those.
Q: You mean a lawsuit?
Prentice: I’m not prepared to say at this time. However, if I were a member of the media I would be extraordinarily careful about what I printed, if you get my drift.
Q: What do you think the accusations are based on, then?
Prentice: I can say that my dealings with the Finance Committee and the finance department over the past year have been fine, completely professional. Ms. Stamp’s departure had nothing to do with any of these accusations. Mr. Wise and Mrs. Bullard do not understand even the basics of municipal finance. And they show little inclination to learn.
Q: Why do you think that is?
Prentice: I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.
Q: Why did you resist an external audit?
Prentice: I didn’t resist it. I said it was unnecessary at this time. I’ve just been accused publicly of misusing public funds. Isn’t it equally a misuse of public funds to waste money on something we don’t need?