Confirm, confirm, confirm

127wgEsG20140926163616shutterstock_110345888All of the best information in a story is completely worthless if it is wrong. To do the basic job of reporting, you need to get your facts right.

I was taught as an investigative reporter to confirm, confirm, confirm. Don’t just take someone’s statement as gospel. It’s hard, especially when people are trying to save their jobs, their reputations, or their heads. People lie, or forget, or misremember things. Their stories might be contradicted by others. Emotions and opinions get in the way. But the facts are the facts.

Any investigative reporter worth his salt knows that you need ways to back up claims. You need the evidence that supports the facts. Find the documents, the reports, the official research. Find police reports, bank statements, 911 tapes, surveillance video, grand jury testimony, or IRS forms.

I can’t count how many times in my career that police hid behind a blanket of an “open investigation,” or when governments created a maze of read tape to make it hard to access financial documents. Investigators would forget to mail something, or lose my email address, or say they were too short-staffed to get me my records in a timely manner. But you need to keep at it. One of my proudest moments is a reporter was being dogged enough to keep calling, keep sending emails, and keep sending records requests, following up on an itch that police were hiding something about a fatal car crash. In the end, all that work pays off – in my case, police lied about how long it took to respond to a single-vehicle car crash, which I confirmed using 911 tapes and public records. The facts tell the story.

To quote Rasheed Wallace, ‘ball don’t lie.’ Find the facts.

Then, just as importantly, you need to find the best way to share those facts clearly and succinctly. In the rush to tell stories, facts can get muddled or lost amid the clutter of so many voices shouting the loudest to reach viewers.

Sometimes, the simplest option is the best.

After the grand jury decision on the Darren Wilson-Michael Brown case, an article went viral about a University of Kansas student who laid out the facts. According to Kansas Exposed, KU journalism major Shelby Lawson laid out the facts of the case on her Facebook page, and cited the specific sources to back up those facts. Lawson linked to grand jury testimony and highlighted specific sections. She linked to autopsy reports and pulled out specific items.

Is it a perfect piece, devoid of any flaws? No, but it does the best job I’ve seen of linking to real documents and reports and using those facts to sort out the reality of the situation.

Sometimes in complicated cases, you need to take the reader by the hand and walk them through the process. It’s like paying your taxes – those forms can be daunting, but they’re much more manageable with Turbo Tax walking you through each step.

I’ve heard people say about the Ferguson case, “we’ll never know what really happened.” They’re probably right. But the closest we can get to completely understanding it lies in the facts. They just need to be confirmed, and presented clearly.

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