Editor's Blog - How we work, how we make decisions, how we serve Canadians.

Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Verification: Why getting it right trumps getting it first

Categories: Journalism, Politics


"In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction or art. ... Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right."
- from The Elements of Journalism

The Boston Marathon bombings resulted in some of the best, and the worst, journalism in recent memory. The Boston Globe, in particular, has earned kudos around the world for the work of its journalists in telling us what happened. Other news organizations, which reported, and in some cases, continued to report uncorroborated information, had their reputations severely tarnished.

The story was unfolding in real time on social media and live television. It was difficult teasing out what was fact from what was speculation and rumour. Networks felt pushed to present new information but going with the unverified story as soon as you get it is not the most desirable thing to do.

Media organizations faced a similar challenge last week when Gawker.com and the Toronto Star both revealed that their reporters had seen a video allegedly showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. As outrageous as the allegations appeared to be, they raised significant questions about the mayor's ability to run Canada's sixth largest government.

This wasn't a story we could ignore. Yet, it was one that gave us pause.
Here are the factors that we weighed and that ultimately guided our coverage:
•    The information we have and are reporting on is neither rumour, nor unsubstantiated. A video is circulating. That is not a rumour. This is a case of two journalists from the Toronto Star who saw something which they believed to be a video of the mayor, combined with corroborating evidence from another member of the media who saw the same tape.
•    The question remains whether the video was doctored or faked, and whether the person in the video was is in fact the mayor, but we are confident that there is something circulating with images similar to those that have been described.

In many ways we face these kinds of decisions every day, and the Ford example is only front and centre because of the nature of the allegation.

These events and similar stories big and small (remember when some reported the death of singer Gordon Lightfoot?) have led to a great deal of soul-searching within newsrooms.

Based on the above, CBC News has decided to remind viewers, listeners and readers that our own reporters have not been able to view - and validate - the content of the video.

Verification has also become the subject of academic papers. The most recent example was published this spring by the chair of Ryerson University's Journalism department along with colleagues from Ryerson and Laval. While the researchers spoke solely to print reporters at 28 newspapers in Canada, I did find it heartening that all continue to make verification of facts a priority.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the facts that appeared to be the easiest to corroborate are the ones that would most likely be verified. These would include names, numbers and other "concrete" details. In some cases, journalists cross-checked information using public documents and other documentation, and employed more than two methods of verification, a tactic known in social sciences research as "source triangulation". That is the rule of thumb at CBC News as well. New information needs to be corroborated by a second source.

But the study also found that statements were often relayed, some without attribution, on the basis of one source, or on the basis of knowledge from the reporter's previous work. What the study also reveals is that there's no standard code that all journalists use to ensure accuracy.

That may be somewhat disconcerting to some of you but that's the reality. And the paradigm of the 24-hour news cycle makes verification even more challenging - and important.

At a recent social media summit in New York City panelists came up with a number of potential suggestions to ensure accuracy. It included a colour-coded system for ranking verification, in which reporters and news organizations would be rated on their ability to verify content and information - with green being high and red being low. In this way, news consumers would have a way to make up their own minds about whether to believe something they see reported.

We too are continually examining our own policies to keep up with the new speed of journalism. We are constantly evolving our journalistic standards and practices and have mandated our new director of journalistic accountability, Jack Nagler, to propose changes that would address these issues.

Our reputation depends on it. I am reminded of this anecdote by Peter Mansbridge. Back in September 2000, he was told on good authority that former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had died. Mansbridge felt confident in his source, but he insisted on double- and then triple-checking the facts before going to air. He was still first with the news, but he knew that "First to report on Pierre Trudeau's death" probably won't make his own obituary. Had he been wrong, the words "Reported Pierre Trudeau was dead when he was still very much alive" very well might have become Mansbridge's epitaph.

Tags: How We Work, Policy

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