Darya speaks with Dr. Stephanie Edgerly and Peter Slevin about truth and journalism. Dr. Edgerly shares how we can be more savvy news consumers, while Mr. Slevin shares what goes on behind the scenes in a newsroom and the process of journalism.
Stephanie Edgerly (PhD., University of Wisconsin-Madison) is an associate professor with a specialization in audience insight at Northwestern University. She is also director of research at the Medill School of Journalism, and a faculty associate at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. Dr. Edgerly’s research explores how features of new media alter the way people consume news and the impact on political engagement. She is the 2020 recipient of the Walder Award for research excellence at Northwestern, and a speaker in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs as an expert in journalism. She has traveled to Belgium, Denmark, China, the UK, Greece, and the Philippines to talk with government officials, journalists, and students about issues related to fake news, news media trust, and news literacy.
Peter Slevin is a Chicago-based contributing writer for The New Yorker who focuses on politics. He has written recently about the power of Republican disinformation in Iowa and progressive reactions to President Biden’s agenda. He spent a decade on the Washington Post’s national staff, as well as seven years as the Miami Herald’s European correspondent. Slevin is the author of “Michelle Obama: A Life,” which was a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. He teaches at Northwestern University, where he is a professor at the Medill School of Journalism.
Pizzagate: From rumor, to hashtag, to gunfire in D.C. by Marc Fisher
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Hello, everyone, and welcome back to The Darya Rose Show. I have two fantastic guests for you today to discuss the topic, how do we know what's true in the news? It's a good question, right? So, we've already discussed how social media makes reading the news more tricky. But I really wanted to speak to e- experts who are actual journalists in the field, who can give us a bit more insight about why we can trust certain news sources over others.
So, my first guest today is Dr. Stephanie Edgerly. And Stephanie is an Associate Professor with a specialization in audience insight at Northwestern University. She is also Director of Research at the Medill School of Journalism, and a Faculty Associate at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research. Dr. Edgerly's research explores how features of new media alter the way people consume news and the impact on political engagement. She is the 2020 recipient of the Walder Award for research excellence at Northwestern and a speaker in the US State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs as an expert in journalism. She has traveled to Belgium, Denmark, China, the UK, Greece, and the Philippines to talk with government officials, journalists, and students about issues related to fake news, news media trust, and news literacy.
I really wanted to talk to Stephanie because I wanted to get a sense of how we as consumers of news can be more savvy, and have just a little bit of a more critical eye when we're reading things that are presented to us online. And Stephanie shares a lot of fantastic tips that we can use to have that insight, and to feel a little bit more confident that what we're reading is true and worth re- repeating. And we're sharing with others because that is where it gets really sticky is when bad information starts to spread.
My second guest is Peter Slevin. Now, Peter is more of a on the ground reporter. He spent decades working in big newsrooms, the Miami Herald and The Washington Post, and is currently a contributing writer at The New Yorker. And I wanted to talk to Peter because he could really break down exactly how decisions are made in the newsroom. Now, this is incredibly important. So, as a scientist, I already knew the process of how the scientific method works. And that's why I trust it, and that's why I had Dr. Adam Gazzaley on to share it with you. I am way less savvy in journalism. And I don't know exactly what's going on. And as I started digging around, I found that it was actually pretty hard to figure out how stories are surfaced, how they're found, how they're vetted, how sources are vetted, how many sources do you need before you decide something's true enough to publish?
And Peter is an expert in this. He's done it for decades. And he breaks all this down for me to help build confidence in what a reporter does because at the end of the day that's what we need to know, right? How can I trust you as a reporter? How do I know that what you're saying is true or as true as you believe it can be. And in the cases where there are mistakes made, what can be done?
So, I learned so much from talking to both of them. And one of the things that I found most exciting about these discussions is that, obviously, m- media organizations know that this is a problem. And they are actually taking steps to make this all better. I mean, not, not that it's easy to fix. But they are taking steps to improve transparency, and to help build that confidence that we need as consumers of news. So, I hope you really enjoy this. I hope you learn a lot. And if you do, I hope you'll share it with people who may also need to learn this information. Thank you and enjoy. Stephanie, thank you so much for being on the show.
No problem. Thank you for having me.
I'm really excited to talk to you because journalism is not my field, even though I have a show. My background is science and academic science. But I'm very interested in the truth as most people in academics and especially science, and I know journalism are as well. And like many people I have been watching with horror as our media environment has deteriorated over the past decade or so, but especially in the last few years. And I felt compelled when I was launching the show to do a whole series on this question, how do we know what's true? Because I feel like it's gotten really confusing. And some people I've talked to we're totally on the same page and other people I've talked to we live in like completely different universes. And it's hard to even have conversations.
It's sad that some of these people that I have trouble talking to now I really love because they're members of my family. I would love to chat with you about the breakdown that's going on here. And I think a big percentage [laughs] of it is the news. It's just to be this animosity from almost everyone about the news and the media. When I was growing up in the '90s. I don't want to date myself too bad, '80s and '90s. CNN, for example, was considered the most respectable, neutral, unbiased news source you could use. Everyone felt that way. And now I talked to people that I know that think it's not much better than a tabloid. And I'm wondering what's going on here?
Yeah, it's a much more complicated, interesting and terrifying media environment all mixed into one. And I would say that I'm with ya', I feel ya' on the nostalgia of the previous media environment. In a lot of ways it was more straightforward and simple. But I also like to give the caveat that there were some not so great features of the previous media environment. There was not a lot of choice, um, which means that you had a few people that were setting the agenda. Predominantly, the journalism industry, people you saw on TV, people in the newspapers were not very diverse. They tended to be older white men. The stories that were covered tended to be a little narrower. And all of that is just to say that I want to gut check a little bit our tendency to romanticize, if you will, the prior media environment, and how straightforward and simple things used to be.
[laughs]. That's fair.
All of that, though, is to say that I'm with ya'. And, and I think a big reality of today's media environment is that back and forth, is that wait a minute, can I trust this source? I'm turning the channel and hearing something completely different. And I think, you know, in the past media environment, and if you want to jump a couple decades ago with Walter Cronkite you had someone telling you that's the way it is. And there is some beauty to somebody telling you that's the way it is and you not having to second guess their motives, or why they're saying it that way. That's just not the case right now. There's-
Was that actually his tagline?
Yeah, that was.
[laughs]. Just that's the way it is [crosstalk 00:07:09].
And people were like, "Yep, thank you." That's just not where we are in this media age, right? This is a media age of being skeptical, of knowing or, or being aware that there are a lot of different sources out there, a lot of different types of information that you can't trust everything on the internet. And all of that makes it a much more complicated world to navigate, and to know who to give your trust to, which I think is what we're seeing playing out right now.
Yeah. Okay, there's just a lot more sources, and the internet happens. And people are more aware that there's a lot of things out there, and some of them aren't necessarily true. And then they can find sources that they prefer, and then we get siloed that way.
Yeah, as we start talking about the process that journalists go through when writing their story, and the checks and balances that should be in place. All of that is also being squeezed by digital technology, social media, and the kind of financial pressures that news organizations are operating under.
So, the news organizations themselves aren't doing as good of a job, is that-
No, I categorize it as we're asking them to do more. It takes more time now to verify information-
I see, I see.
You get more tips, things circulate on social media. And you have to say, "Hold on, Is this true?" A lot of news organizations need to do more with less resources and less time.
Because they're seeing the same stuff on Twitter that we're seeing, and then they have to go verify it, which unlike somebody randomly on Facebook may or may not do that. But somebody let's say at The Times will follow it up and try to hunt it down. But they don't necessarily have all the resources to do that as well as we need them to.
Or the time. It's hurry up, Twitter-
When's it coming out? Breaking, we need to know. Like, we're simultaneously in this situation where we want to give people more time to verify because there's a lot more noise out there. But also, we're in the kind of ambient always on news cycle where it's dope gets scooped by another organization, you need to be the first. Where's the update? 24 hour news channels, no one is perfect. You can't expect an organization to always get it right. We want them to get it right a lot of the time. I was like almost all of the time, but there will be an occasional air. And what a reputable news organization will do is own up to it. They'll explain to you how it happened, why it happened, and what they're going to do in the future to make sure that same mistake doesn't occur again. And then if that exact-
... same mistake occurs again, then you maybe have some tough questions for that organization.
And it reminds me a little bit, too, of the scientific process where a paper will get published. But if there's ever a retraction, which does happen, there are mistakes made and stuff gets published in error, or it just, it turns out that it shouldn't be published anymore. The, the retraction often doesn't get the attention that the original splash makes. So, people who are already biased toward not wanting to believe a certain organization will just point to the error, not point to the attempted correction, and dismiss the whole thing. So, you've used the term reputable news sources. I feel like that even gets questioned a lot these days.
And I, I would love for you if, if you can to go into a little bit like why would a journalist want to work at a reputable news station? What are the ethics probably on some back page of th- The Post or The Times there's some page that describes their ethics [laughs]. But I don't feel like that's very front and center. And I think that a lot of people would be interested to hear, why do these people deserve the good reputation that they have?
I think a lot of it is being transparent about your process, which in, in general, all news organizations can do a better job at and I think we're seeing a move for news organizations to be a little bit more open about how they select stories, and why this story and what procedures have gone on behind the scenes in terms of interviewing and editing. All of that isn't normally displayed to audiences. So it's no surprise that we are completely in the dark about all of that behind the scenes work.
Yeah, I feel like that would be so helpful. You read one line that says we interviewed 24 sources, and what does that even mean? And certain people will blast on Twitter that those sources are, means they're all fake sources [laughs]. Well, I doubt that, but how am I to know as a reader? What are their standards? What are they using to make these decisions? I feel like there's a lot of misunderstanding about how an actual news organization works.
Yeah, but this is the glamor of Hollywood. But that's also where you see depictions like the movie spotlight are a little helpful. I mean, that's the romanticizing of, I mean, a horrible story, not romanticizing a horrible story, but showing you a little bit of what it's like to do that type of investigative work. Certainly, that's a big, important example. That's not an everyday example of journalism work. But I do think those types of depictions start to help people get a better idea of what journalism is about. And it's no shock that there's been a correlation between watching those types of films and more positive attitudes about journalism [laughs].
Because it becomes a little clear what journalists are doing. And I like to, to tell people when we talk about like, why would you pay for journalism? Because that's a whole nother issue? And how do we fund journalism, especially the ones that are going to do this important verifying of information? Basically, you're like paying a group of people to do the work for you. Right? Like, you don't want to track down every tweet, you don't want to be looking up the IP address of a website to see whether it's part of some underground network of ideological parent companies, right? So you're paying someone you're paying experts, a whole bunch of experts to do that work for you. And they, you know, should show you some of the work in what they did in coming to the conclusions that they've come to.
I love that. I love that framing around it because I'm the person who always pay for articles behind the paywall because I want to support people doing good work for that exact reason. I'm curious, how can I know? I want to believe The New York Times. I want to believe CNN, but as a average news consumer, what can I do to know? Is it just totally hidden? Or can I find something out about how they... Let's just have a few stories. Do they publish that anywhere?
You do see more of a movement on the local level of doing this, particularly around story selection for crime stories or business stories. Like why this crime? You can't report about all crimes in a city or an area. So why does this crime get a story or you can't write about all businesses. Why does this business get attention? So there has been a movement to explain a little bit and that'll either be an organization having a policy, and if you go to their About section, which is always really interesting to read about sections of media organizations or news organizations just because you see a little bit of their self branding. You should always feel comfortable to disagree with it. But it's real, it's a really interesting look to see aspirationally what a news organization is trying to be.
Some organizations will include their story selection process in their About and how that's vetted. Sometimes you'll see a sidebar next to a story, especially if it was a long investigative piece or a feature piece where you had people working on it for a while. It'll be behind the curtains look of about the story, why this story. So there is some effort to try to make it a little easier and, and ideally, when you're reading something that doesn't have that you would be like, "Where's the why we chose this section? Let me go peeking around." And if you can't find it, then maybe that's a flag that you should be a little bit more critical.
I see. Yeah, 'cause I feel like that's the hard part. As a consumer I want to know. I really try not to be biased. Obviously, I'm human, I have the things I believe and know or think I know, but I'm open to be proven wrong. If I am wrong, I would like to know that. But generally, it's hard to not give into your biases. In science, this is what we're constantly doing is trying to design hypotheses so that we don't give into our own biases, but it's hard. And I don't know what the tools are. One of the things, for example, that I've done sometimes is use fact checked organizations, but I have friends that don't even believe that.
I know, and, and that's the tough thing about this environment is that my message is not that well, now you have to be a journalist. Now you have to verify everything because there are professionals. Whether that is, is journalists, or nonpartisan fact checking sites that are trained professionals that you can consult who are doing this work for you. So, my message is never do it yourself. Everybody's got to be a journalist. Because if that's the case, like it's a lot of hard work, and people are not going to do it.
Yeah, nobody's gonna do it.
Right. There are a couple tips or ways that you can slow down a little bit and ask yourself some questions that can illuminate some flags. You know, that doesn't always mean that the information is wrong. But you know, if you start to have five red flags, that might be an indication that you need to, to be really careful and not share this, or maybe wait a, a little bit and see if something else comes out. And so, I'm happy to go through those if you think that would be helpful.
I think it would be really helpful, actually.
Yeah, and, and all of these take different amounts of work and they're situational. I, I would say the first one is when you encounter something on social media, you're scrolling down your newsfeed, is it provoking an emotional reaction? And that could be positive or negative, but is the tweet or is the headline, or the photo trying to get you angry, or trying to get you really happy.
And that, again, doesn't automatically mean that it's, it can't be trusted. But it is a signal that it's trying to get an emotional reaction from you. And we're not always thinking rationally when we, we think emotionally. So, that can be one thing to ask yourself. The other one is where did you encounter the information? On social media, we want to slow down a little bit. On social media, we refer to that as, as context collapse because some of the defined spaces that exist offline think like the opinion section of a newspaper, that's not clear in the, the context collapse, the flattened social media feed.
So, you want to slow down a little bit on social media. You want to say, "Hey, wait a minute, do I know this source? Do I know this person? How is this information finding me? Have I invited the source into my newsfeed because I know it? Or is this algorithmically finding me from my friends?" Another one, and this is a quick heuristic, right? These are not always gonna-
... point you in a certain direction. But look at the headline. Are they using all caps, excessive punctuation? Is it a forward referencing headline like you won't believe or what the government doesn't want you to know about... Right? All of that is a little more clickbaity, and not the types of headlines that you will usually see news organizations.
And then a couple more, and these take a little bit more effort. But you got to click on the article, which does not always happen, let me tell you. [laughs]. It's surprising how much we share without first clicking, which is part of the problem. But actually looking at the article and who's being quoted. Are there hyperlinks to other known sources that can also be a, a big giveaway of disinformation or fake news sites is that they don't look outward, they're just trying to get you to follow the one link and click on the one page. If there's obvious grammar or spelling issues, that can be a indication that it didn't go through an editing process.
And then I would say labels have become a really big move, although these are, are contested as the New York Times reminds us lately with their shift in what they call opeds. But usually, if you start to see a, a opinion in an article that you're hearing somebody advocate for a particular position. On that, most news organizations will have a label and it will label it as opinion or analysis or guest essay, if, if, we're talking about the New York Times now. And you'll see that either labeled at the top of the article, but also in the URL. And that, that should tell you that, "Hey, what you're seeing here is opinion. And we are not pretending otherwise." And so, those can be some helpful questions just to slow us down a little bit.
Yeah, yeah, those, those are great. A part of me keeps going back to why don't people trust The New York Times sometimes and that comment about how it's not always clear. Is that why they're doing that is to make it more clear that this is not news? We're sharing this because we think it's interesting, but not because it's news.
Well, opinions have always been part of newspapers. It's just that context, it was really clear that when you were reading something, it was in a totally different section of the paper.
So, that, that line, that divide was very clear. And a hierarchy was in place where what was on the front page above the fold of the newspaper was the hard news that's most important. What does that look like online? What is front page above the fold on Twitter?
It's a lot harder to [laughs] figure that out. And so, we need to help people. That's the issue here is we need to be helping people so th- th- they can better contextualize information. And, and fact versus an opinion is a big distinction that we want to help readers and consumers out with understanding what they're reading.
Yeah. And I'm glad to hear that The Times is making efforts. Are other organizations doing that? Is this gonna get easier for us? [laughs].
I think, I think so. I think there is a movement. With The New York Times they last week, two weeks ago, announced that they were retiring the term oped, old timey term that was like opposite of the editorial page. That's what oped meant.
That's not very intuitive. [laughs]. And-
Yeah, no, I didn't know that. I thought it meant opinion.
Right, right. Yeah, yeah.
That's opinion editorial, right, is a common one. So, they're now changing the, the vernacular, they're gonna retire oped and now use guest essay, which is a lot clearer to understand what's going on that they're not-
And that means it's not staff, right?
It's somebody else is doing it.
Which is a lot. I think if you followed that the controversy of the oped, New York Times oped page, that's been some of the issue is trying to do that careful dance of these are guests we have allowed to write an essay for our paper, but they aren't regular columnist that we have on staff.
I think that's brilliant. I hope to see more of that.
Yeah, I will say that a lot of good, lots of scary stuff. But a lot of good has come out of let's say the last four years because news organizations have really been forced because their survival is on the line, and their value is on the line to listen to a lot of researchers and academics about the psychology of information processing. Because I think largely the thought was we'll just give people correct information. Like, why do people believe false things? Well, because they don't have the correct information. And if you just-
They've been weaponized somehow.
If you just provide people the correct information, then that'll set them straight. And to any of us who have ever said to an uncle or an aunt or somebody like, "There's a New York Times story that says," right, that you're just like dead in the water to some people right from the get go.
So, it's a packaging issue. You have to understand the psychology of how people process information. And so, news organizations have gotten a lot more open to, for example, understanding how to properly fact check, or how to properly write about a correction or debunking an argument that you can't just keep repeating the false thing over and over again, because that's what sticks in people's minds.
Gosh, that happens all the time. I always get so frustrated when I see a clip, and I'm like, "Why are you only showing the lies?" Like you're trying to say they're lies, but don't repeat that [laughs].
And it could be a little like cute, but sometimes it can be really hard to debunk something without saying what you're debunking. But you need to like give the warning, this is a big one with television. We're going to show you a press conference clip, this is false. And then you hear it and then you remind them after the clip that what you just heard was false. So you want to prime the pump, and then remind people after they've heard it, but if you don't give people that on the top warning, they're encoding things before you have given them the most important part, which is, "Hey, this is false."
Yeah, that's great [laughs]. As consumers, we should expect more from news organizations, and they're trying to do that, but it's hard. And this is a hard problem. And it's a new technological environment. But also on our end there, there are some things we can do in terms of looking for red flags for information that isn't so trustworthy. And even if we're going to a more mainstream organization, just being very aware. If you're in a news section versus an opinion section. I still sometimes, I, I feel like there's just people who think the, the real news is fake.
And I don't know what to tell them. I, I want to, I want something to tell them.
These things are not perfect at all. I do this in class a lot as a thinking tool. But a lot of people want some concrete map that they can criticize, and you don't want to hold up to be gospel and static. But I do think it's helpful to have some sort of map for like categorizing things. And there are a lot of issues with this, but I feel pretty fine pointing people to the Media Bias Chart, which has gotten a lot of attention, for better and worse for picking it apart. Um-
Yeah, and I'll, I'll link to that in the show notes.
Yeah, it's a good thinking tool to look at it and see where you disagree and where you agree. But I come down on the fact that people need help categorizing things. If it's up to people to on their own read all the content from all the sources and assess where they are, and put organizations on this map on their own, or to ask their uncle or their friends how they would place them. Like I would at least rather have some other organizations also feeding into how we think about the media environment. So the Media Bias Chart is a good one.
I would also say AllSides does something similar where they have a Media Bias Chart where they categorize organizations as center and then left and then v- very left center. I think it's center, lean left, and then left, and then center, lean, and right. A- a- again, any single story could disprove that categorization. But I just think it's helpful for having some sort of map to, to deviate from.
Absolutely. Every history class I ever took told me that a free and truthful press is really important for a functioning democracy, and I hope we can keep ours [laughs].
Yeah, I can tell you working at a journalism school that our students are excited and energized. And we have seen over the last four years, a lot of more driven students who really understand the importance of their work. And so-
... I think it makes me excited for the future. But I'm also really realistic about the challenges [laughs].
Yeah, good. That, that makes me hopeful, too. And that doesn't make sense to me. It makes sense to me that I'm not the only one who's upset and trying to figure out how to, how to solve this. And I'm glad that there are bright young journalists getting into the fray and willing to get their hands dirty and figure this out for the rest of us so that we can have pleasant holidays again.
All right, Stephanie. I really appreciate you coming. And thank you so much for all your insights.
Our next guest to discuss the process of journalism is Peter Slevin. Peter is a Chicago-based contributing writer for The New Yorker who focuses on politics. He has written recently about the power of Republican disinformation in Iowa and progressive reactions to President Biden's agenda. He spent a decade on the Washington Post's national staff as well as seven years as the Miami Herald European's correspondent. Slevin is the author of Michelle Obama: A Life which was a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. He teaches at Northwestern University where he's a professor at the Medill School of Journalism. Peter, welcome to the show. I'm so happy to have you here today.
It's great to be here.
So, I am trying to understand what goes on in newsrooms before an article is published because it seems logical to me that a lot of the distrust in the media that we're seeing these days comes from a little bit of a misunderstanding, or maybe a complete lack of understanding about, you know, how news actually makes it to publication. And, and I thought, I should talk to somebody who does this for a living [laughs] and who has a lot of experience in this so that I could get a better idea of myself because, I mean, it's not super clear. Like if you go on to the Washington Post's, uh, website, and there's information there about ethics and standards and all this, but it's, it still feels pretty abstract to me. And I, and I don't have a clear picture of what's going on behind the scenes. I'm curious, just to get started, I'm wondering how a, a person who's maybe a little bit more naive to the process can judge what's going on?
It's a challenge for sure. And what we're seeing in our, our polarized society, and this, this shows up in, in opinion surveys, that many people are looking for affirmation of what they already believe when they go to a new site, or whether that is on, you know, in print, whether it's on the web, whether it's on the radio, whether it is, is cable news where they, their views will be reinforced, where people whom they read or listen to or watch are really very familiar.
But they're certainly, you know, a fair number of people who go to different sites because they want to be educated and they want to know what's going on. And the way to check it out is the way you would check out a new coworker, right? Or how you might assess a movie you went to or a friend and that is, you follow that person and start to see whether what that person writes or says or broadcasts is really true with what you know, with your common sense, with things you've read elsewhere. It's very hard to do with one any individual story, but over time, if you're committed to figuring things out and, and, um, going deep on an issue, or at least enough to know, uh, from story to story, how things are developing, then it becomes a little bit more clear.
Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Is there anything that media organizations are doing to help in this? Because I, I obviously, I'm assuming that people know this is a problem.
It's definitely identified as a problem both for democracy and to s-, to some extent, to, to news organizations business. One thing that certainly began to happen, and this goes back a couple of decades is a greater commitment to transparency. You know, the, the very fact that you're asking these questions, Darya, and indicating that people don't really know how it works is, is a truth that we've had, we've lived with for a while that newspapers, news organizations have started to recognize. Again, they started to recognize it a while ago, but they've gone a little deeper. And so, you will see in news coverage, here's how we got the story. Here's who our reporters are. Here's what they do around town. Here are their... In some cases here are their other activities.
One measure of a newspapers commitment to transparency and, and integrity is how they handle corrections because we get things wrong. Not willfully, not because of some great conspiracy, but because we're human, or we're given bad information. And sometimes it's somebody misspoke. And sometimes they may have had an agenda that we didn't pick up on. And so, what happens when that, when, when there's a correction needs to be made. Early in my career, it was newspapers were really reluctant to admit a mistake. And that itself was a mistake. And the, the rules of the road now are, if you have, if you commit a mistake as a news organization, fix it and admit it and come clean right away. And that helps readers understand that you're trying to get it right. You don't always get it right. But when you do get it wrong. Well, you tell people what is, what got, what was wrong, what's right, and, and how you're going to try to avoid messing up the next time.
I'd love to hear a little bit more about sort of the research that gets done in like a specific story. So I'm curious, how do you even get started? Are, are you allowed as a reporter to pursue any story you want? Do you have to talk to some sort of editor before pursuing something? How does that work?
That's a very good question, and it varies from place to place. There are any number of local newspapers, for example, where cutbacks have been so significant. There aren't very many reporters, and everybody is doing everything and half the time you're being thrown into a story you've never come across, and you're meeting people you've, you've never seen, and you have to turn around a story in, you know, four hours.
So, on that one, you're relying on your kind of professionalism and your news judgment to figure out pretty quickly what the actual news is, and you're doing it on the fly. What's different would be a longer term story, an investigative story perhaps, or a long profile of a particular person, or a government program or something going on at a school where you would, you do it, you might imagine the way one started the research paper. You know, in school, where you start with the basics and who's who, what are the main issues? What's the history? Where you really do spend some time reading. If you've got the luxury of time, you're, you're interviewing experts, or people who've had experience while you're figuring out what your angle is.
And the best reporters start with questions and not answers. Rather than saying that this program is a disaster, let's find out why. They're asking, "Well, how does it work, and what's going right and what's going wrong?" And then following the news, the evidence where it leads them. Uh, you mentioned having a beat and beat reporting is something that is focused on a particular institution, such as, let's again, you could say the schools or the state legislature or an issue, which could be local business, small business. It could be economics, it could be sports, it could be the business of sports, it could be the police beat. And what happens over time is you get more and more stories, you meet more and more people. In theory, you become smarter and wiser. You start to recognize what is important, what hasn't been covered, what's distinctive, what's going wrong, what's going right, you connect the dots and institutional memory that comes from that is, um, really the coin of the realm, and in many news organizations.
so, it sounds like the straight like breaking news is kind of its own difficult thing because of the time pressure, and then more investigative, long, longer term stories, you have more of a luxury of time and being able to do more research and be a little bit more careful with what you say and how you say it and all that.
Right, very, very much. Now, you can have breaking news on your beat. And that's, that's terrific because then you have somebody who very quickly can digest what happened, what it means, know whom to speak with, and turn it out quickly. Imagine, for example, someone who covers the Supreme Court, which can be a rather byzantine organization, rather hard to figure out what's going on. But if you have someone, let's say, for National Public Radio, who's covered the Supreme Court for years, and opinion comes out, well, that person knows the background and can quickly do a breaking news story.
Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, I imagine certain things are straightforward. But I imagine something times it's not straightforward to when you get a certain piece of information. So, for instance, if you get something in your, and it's interesting, how do you go about verifying something like that? How much confidence do you need in it before publishing? I'm just talking about just facts, that some facts that might be considered news.
That is a challenge. And there's a funny line that foreign correspondents sometimes trade with one another. And foreign correspondents, you know, might be dropping into, to Moscow or, or Cairo, or Belgrade, and they haven't been there before. And the old, the old wag says to the young one, right it before it gets complicated. Because sometimes at first-
... it seems really clear. You know, who the good guys are, the bad guys are, you've done just enough to know nothing, but you think you know something [laughs]. And then, you know, a couple of days in, a couple of weeks in, and you're thinking, "None of this makes any sense, help." But on a, on a basic story, get a tip, let's say or you're at a county commission meeting, and someone raises a point that, that catches your eye. You start figuring out who knows something? You, you find out, the natural thing would be actually to turn to the old faithful internet, and to what used to be called more of clippings from newspapers, which of course are now online, and you say, "Well, who wrote about this before? What were the issues then? What can I know about the basics? Is this a story?" And you decide a, if it's a story, well, then you're finding people who are trustworthy. It gets back to that question of credibility, who can tell me things that are both true and meaningful?
So, it's, it's you put one thing in front of another, and a, as long as things are lining up and making sense then it meets the burden of proof?
I think so. And sometimes it leads you exactly away from your original notion about the story.
And you have to be prepared for that, which can mean a couple of things. One is you have 180 degrees, I wouldn't say wrong, but you're, it's a, it's a 180 degrees away from where you started. So you're saying, "Oh, well, that's, that's interesting in its own right." Or it's 180 degrees from where you started and it's actually not a story. One challenge that reporters face is the willingness and, and I should say with their editors, too, [laughs] to work on a story and conclude that actually, that's not really a story, or what we thought was true isn't.
And so, it's you risk wasting time and resources.
Right. And your editor is sort of thinking, "Now, what did you do for the last three days?" But that's, it happens, for, for sure. And sometimes, too, I think this is more often the case, you, you start pulling on a thread, and, and you write a little story. And, and then because of that story somebody else tells you something, or you make a connection while working on that story with something, you know, a second thing that happened, and pretty soon, you're getting that something much bigger.
A bigger story, and that, that you just get more articles out of that. That's [crosstalk 00:38:25]-
Yeah. If all goes well.
And I'm curious, like, uh, as, I mean, you know, for, for very basic stuff that all seems pretty straightforward. But, you know, there's been a lot of controversial facts [laughs] let's say in the past few years. And there's always this question of like, if you're the public, though, how do you know what hoops the journalists have gone through to verify this information? Like, how can we feel confident in that?
Well, as Kellyanne Conway, President Trump's advisors said that these are alternative facts, as if such and such a thing existed. And we all remember what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said back in the 1960s. Madam, you're entitled to your opinions, but you're not entitled to your own set of facts. And, and that's the perpetual challenge that's gotten only more intense for journalists in recent years. The challenge is, as you say, Darya, to, to figure out what's true, and then how to convey if someone in particular happens to be not telling the truth. And it used to be that it wasn't a huge issue there. It just simply, simply meant there wasn't as much lying to use that word or certainly repetition of falsehoods at least early in my career as there is now.
And, um, what you'll see now in news stories is a recognition that things that are misstated by prominent people that are in the paper because they have to be because they're prominent have to be corrected right away. So, you'll often see these days something that never happened before. President Trump, citing no evidence, said such and such a thing. Or you know, Senator so and so contrary to the na-, the, the scientific consensus said climate change, human-caused climate change doesn't exist. Where this, the idea is you need to put things that you know are false. You need to set them right immediately for your readers or your audience.
That seems more of a, more of a new rule.
It, it's kind of new rule is kind of a new rule. I mean, it started... It's, it's got an interesting history. There, there is the, the fact checking movement, if you want to call it that had its origins in two very big events nearly 20 years ago. The first was the US invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in March of 2003. When it turned out that there was a great deal of coverage ahead of time that misstated what Saddam Hussein as the leader of Iraq was up to. Specifically, that he had connections to Al Qaeda and terrorism, and that he was reconstituting his nuclear program and had significant amounts of weapons of mass destruction. Well, that helped build the case and public popular support for what at first was a popular war. None of it turned out to be true.
The second thing happened the next year when John Kerry, the Democrat senator from Massachusetts ran against the incumbent George W. Bush when George Bush was running for re election. John Kerry had been a certified war hero during Vietnam. He had purple hearts for injuries. He had won medals for courage. And it was an important part of his resume when he ran for president against George Bush who had spent the war with the Texas Air National Guard and had not gone to Vietnam. And you may remember that in the summer of 2004, a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth put out some devastating ads against John Kerry saying they had served with John Kerry in Vietnam. He was not the soldier he said he was. The things that he said he had done were not true. They said, "I know because I was there."
Well, Kerry didn't know what to do because he didn't want to give air to it. This is before people understood what, what it means to go viral on the web. And the media didn't really see it either as a big story, or when they could quickly get at. And so, that story, smearing him was out there. Now, months later, it turned out that what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were saying was not true. And that in fact, John Kerry's record was as just as he said it was, but it was... It took too long, and it hurt his campaign. And reporters after those two events with Iraq and John Kerry said, "You know, we need to come up with a plan. We need to come up with an approach that challenges falsehoods. And that's where politifact.org and factcheck.com were, were founded along with the Washington Post Fact Checker, all three of which are really good sources when people are trying to figure out what's true.
That is fascinating. I didn't, I didn't know the history there. And that makes a lot of sense. I didn't know that's what the term swift boated means. [laughs].
[laughs]. That's right.
That's hilarious. I mean, it's horrible. But yeah.
And those are really good sources you were asking earlier what how people can know what's true. There are professional fact checkers. CNN has one too. Daniel Dale, who's terrific. The Washington Post Fact Checker counted 30,000 misrepresentations or falsehoods from Donald Trump during his time and then politifact.org actually won a Pulitzer Prize for its work.
That is astounding. I also know people who don't trust fact checking organizations. It's very confusing.
There's only so much one can do. [laughs].
I think, I mean, of course, that's the, it's, this is a conversation that happens in newsrooms all the time. How to reach people who will not believe their eyes, who will not believe what's right in front of them, and, and no one has a really good answer for that one, I'm afraid.
Yeah, that's, that's very sad. In terms of sources, we talked about it a little bit already. But what are your criteria for a source I read about like the deep throat was a mystery for a long time in the Watergate period? And that was an anonymous source. Like why would, why was that person trusted? Like why would you trust somebody now? [crosstalk 00:44:18]. And how many sources do you need? Sorry. And also how many sources do you need to-
... to confirm something or like at what point do you believe some story from, from people's mouths?
What's interesting about the, about the Watergate sourcing by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were then Metro reporters, City Hall report, city, City Government reporters for The Washington Post. They believe I think rightly at the time that they needed two sources for their stories, or at least, but most of their stories and deep throat who was their very significant source was, was not known until rather recently to readers, but he was known to them [crosstalk 00:44:55]. And over the course of many months, maybe longer that he served, during which he served as their source they came to know him and trust him because of what he told them and, and how it checked out. The most reliable source is one who has been true before. In other words, it's a, a relationship you develop over time.
Now, in a story where you might have a source who is, uh, new to you, and or who is, whom you're using for the first time, you're doing everything you can to find out what this person says is true. As you mentioned documents before, there's nothing, nothing as good as documents to, to confirm what somebody is telling you. What sort of reputation does this person have, um, in his workplace or in the community? Has he been in trouble before? If he's been in trouble before does that, does that have an impact on what he's telling you now? And especially what is this person's agenda? Why is this person telling you this?
Sometimes it is out of the goodness of their heart because they see wrongdoing, they see something going wrong, and they want to fix it. Sometimes, maybe they're having a... There's a rivalry at work, and this person doesn't want the, you know, his rival to succeed. And so, you're doing everything you can to assess the, the integrity of the person who's sharing this information.
Yeah, that makes sense. So two sources is sort of the, the minimum, is that still true?
I don't think it is true. And I think that's one problem that particularly breaking news suffers from. There's such a rush to get it out that too often the pressure is to get it out first and not to be right.
Hmm. So that's another internet problem.
It is, it really is an internet problem. There's, you know, used to be you had news cycles that-
... lasted, oh, a whole day. Imagine where your, your paper would come out in the morning, or, you know, maybe you were dealing with the evening news on, on TV. And well, once the evening news was, was done for that day, well, you had 24 hours to, to work on the next door. And similarly, one's the paper's out, well, you have the whole day to work on, on your follow up, and that is absolutely not true.
So, a reputable organization is then going to rely slightly more on corrections in, in, in the case that they didn't quite get something right in order to break a story.
Yeah, I mean, I guess one advantage of the web is if you do get it wrong, you can fix it online. So, it doesn't, it isn't perpetuated in quite the same way. But as they say that a lie travels very quickly.
Indeed, I feel like a lot of people are concerned about the, again, bias and the backend of the news organization having some kind of an agenda. Does, do editors put pressure on reporters ever? Or is it more of a collaboration? How does, what is the decision making process in terms of what goes into a story, what is emitted, what stories aren't covered as thoroughly versus what is covered more thoroughly?
At quality news organizations, the editor-reporter relationship, or if it's broadcast to producer reporter relationship is utterly collaborative. To make it work, it has to be a two way street, where each side is listening to the other. Where the editor may be saying, "Hey, have you checked this angle?" Or, you know, I was reading your copy, and I wasn't sure that you really addressed this issue very clearly, or very thoroughly. Can you go back and get more? And similarly there needs to be the kind of respect between reporter and editor that when a reporter, the person who's out and about doing the work, doing the interviews, or going to the rallies, or the council meeting says, "You know what, this is not the story we thought it was." The editor needs to kind of push back and question that, but ultimately needs to rely on the reporter's judgment.
Great. It's good to hear. [laughs].
That's when it goes well. It's always funny to... I remember from my newsroom days in Miami at the Miami Herald, sometimes readers would say, "We, we have been ruined by the Miami Herald. It is a conspiracy against us. It's been a conspiracy against us for years." And if, if most readers knew how disorganized newsrooms were, they would recognize that it, of conspiracy wouldn't really probably even be possible. [laughs].
Because there's so many moving pieces and so many people going in different directions and, and coherence is not always the most apparent trait of, of many newsrooms.
Yeah, that's... Yeah, that makes sense. It is, it is, it is. Gosh, it's hard to contain these conspiracy theories. Darn it.
It is, and, and there's some great work being done. I remember the one on the comet pizza in, in Washington, D.C. That was the, the pizza joint on Connecticut Avenue where supposedly Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring. I mean, it was crazy. And then one day I got-
In the basement.
... in the basement, exactly. And then one guy shows up with a gun because he believed it. And, uh, Mark Fisher at The Washington Post had a very good story deconstructing that and showing how it all, how it all came to pass.
Yeah, I read that. It was really, really well done. It was really good. And I can, I can link to that in the show notes. Okay, so just wrapping up then. As, as a consumer of news I'm wondering do you have, you know, for somebody who doesn't necessarily know all the ins and outs of the, of the newsroom, and what's going on, what are the best practices as a consumer for assessing what's credible? And what, what I can take home? Is this is, this is true even, you know, assuming there's-
I think, I think it's-
[crosstalk 00:50:21] for mine, even.
Well, sure. And I think it's, it's wise to be skeptical of all sources. Certainly at the beginning if you don't know a reporter, whether it's a reporter on TV or, or the radio or, or in print, read with a careful eye. Try to see if it, if it jives with what you do know, what piece of the story you know. Does it seem well sourced? Is there an array of sources? Does the person seem to be trying to, to get all sides? And then if it's an issue that you care about, read a variety of, of newspapers or go to a variety of websites or go deeper with, with let's say a documentary, if there is that, you know, there's a documentary about this or a podcast on the theme. Educate yourself so that you're a smart consumer of the news.
If you have a question about a fact go to The Washington Post Fact Checker or PolitiFact to see who has studied this and, and who's right and who's wrong, and, uh, have faith that you can, you can, you can figure it out. I think one of the most interesting things about crises when big news stories happen if it's a war or a presidential campaign, for that matter, surveys show that people do turn to certain trusted news sources. That's often The Washington Post, for example, or the Associated Press, or one of the network news channels. And the reason is that, that many people do recognize that quality organizations will try to do it right. Another one is NPR.
Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Peter. I have learned so much today. And I have... Actually, I feel pretty good about it. I feel like I have a lot, a little bit more faith. [laughs]. I mean it sounds like, it sounds like everybody is working hard and trying to do a good job. And, and there are tools. I mean, that's the one benefit of, as you said of the internet is there are tools now that when there are mistakes made they can be quite corrected pretty, pretty swiftly.
I'm so glad, Darya, that you mentioned that you feel a little better. The fact is, the vast majority of journalists in this country are trying to do it right. They're trying to be as fair as they can possibly be, to check their sources, not to cut corners, certainly not to inject their own opinions. Even though there's a caricature based perhaps on, on commentators that that's what everybody is, is trying to do. You know, build a brand, be famous, be snarky, be snarly, the vast majority of, of reporters and there are tens of thousands of them around the country get up every day and tr- try to tell true stories.
I really, really appreciate the work that you do, and that your colleagues do. And thank you so much for joining us today.
Thanks for having me.
Thank you so much for listening today. If you want to learn more about either of our guests, Stephanie Edgerly, you can read about her at her Northwestern faculty page. I'll go ahead and link to that in the show notes. Or you can follow her on Twitter @StephEdgerly. If you'd like to learn more about Peter Slevin, you can follow his profile at the New Yorker where he is a contributing writer. You can also follow him on Twitter @PeterDSlevin.
Also, if you enjoyed today's episode, it would really mean a lot to me if you would head over to Apple and leave us a review. I read every single one and it is sort of one of my favorite parts of the day reading nice feedback on the work I'm doing. So thank you guys who've done that already. And I, I would appreciate more, the more five star reviews we get, the better guests we will get for the show and the more awesome information that I can bring you. Thank you guys, and I'll see you next time.