18 January 2012

Correcting a correction and the power/danger of unverified facts

Publishing an unverified fact is an opportunity to challenge traditional notions of power as it relates to truth gatekeepers. It is not, however, an excuse for sloppy journalism.

The danger of publishing unverified information made headlines recently, after CNBC correspondent Eamon Javers published a story that claimed Mitt Romney’s former employer, Bain & Company, was a consultant during the auto company bailouts overseen by the Obama Administration.

The story was pulled after Bain’s PR president challenged the connection, claiming it was incorrect and demanding a retraction, to which CNBC promptly abided. But then it was learned that the report was correct, and that the correction was wrong, as Craig Silverman notes on Poynter.com. So Javers wrote another story, but not before the webomino effect ravaged the blogosphere, claiming CNBC didn’t operate by basic journalistic principles of fact verification.

Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik was one of the more outspoken critics, Silverman notes.  Even after the original story was proven correct, many remained convinced that CNBC's failure to properly verify the fact was its cardinal sin. 

Within the firestorm of criticism, there is an interesting dichotomy: What if Javers had contacted Bain & Company successfully before he wrote the first story, but the company lied to him about the connection, as they obviously did in their retaliation to his story?

Business Insider confirmed the CNBC report was correct after contacting the Treasury Department. But would they have even bothered if the CNBC report never published? Should Javers and/or CNBC have contacted the Treasury in the first place?

The easy answer is yes, they should have. But did they really have to? After all, it’s not above federal agencies to lie about connections either, especially if there’s a conflict of interest. Remember the CIA and crack-cocaine connection?

When the CIA lied to Gary Webb about being connected to the cocaine trade, did Webb drop the story? Or when the media establishment countered his claims as false, did he waiver from his findings? No, he didn't. His verification came through other means, which was not accepted by mainstream media until after Webb's death — a loss on many levels.   

The Javers case isn’t the best example, but the point remains: Sometimes it takes publishing something that is difficult to verify to actually get the verification, as it puts the spotlight on those unwilling to confirm or deny. It also reaches out to those who would be unreachable by any other means, to step forward and confirm or deny.*

Deciding who or what to use as verification inherently places power in the hands of the few. Putting full faith into a source to confirm information when there could be a vested interest in keeping that information out of the public eye — or altering it in some way — is especially dangerous when that is the sole source of verification. It's not a black and white issue, and it takes a bit of instinct and reasoning to know the right path while determining if a specific or generally accepted form of verification could actually impede the truth. 

Journalism is about seeking the truth, which often requires taking risks and standing by those risks. Without guts, we’d have no legs to stand on and no stomach to feed our legs. 

*By the way, I just totally plagiarized my comments on Poynter. I hope the SOPA hags don’t find out.

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