Verify or Duck: Good Journalists Confirm Details They Didn’t Witness

Verify all details you didn’t witness yourself. Don’t repeat unconfirmed claims.

Details matter. Journalists like to include the brand of the beer, the make and model of the car, and the name and breed of the dog.

Most stories won’t suffer too much if the reporter ducks an occasional minor detail. But without verified details, you don’t have journalism. If you do your job as a journalist — interviewing multiple sources and corroborating their claims — then you should encounter plenty of viewpoints with overlapping details that that line up.

Once when I shared the journalism catchphrase “verify or duck,” some of my students laughed because they thought I said “verify your duck.”

If the story holds together without the iffy parts, great. Don’t even mention the parts you can’t verify. It’s not your job as a reporter to spread “unconfirmed rumors.”

If your entire story depends on one outlier whose unique claim nobody can confirm, you don’t have a story.

Verify What Your Sources Claim

In March 2017, a group of high school journalists doing a routine profile noticed that their newly hired principal, Amy Robertson, had listed on her resume graduate degrees from Corllins University.

Picture of happy student journalists holding copies of their paper, The Beacon.

Pittsburg Kansas High School students Trina Paul, Gina Mathew, Kali Poenitske, Maddie Baden, Patrick Sullivan and Connor Balthazor have been beset with national attention after a story they wrote in the school newspaper led to the resignation of their newly hired principal. —Keith Myers The Kansas City Star

They found the Corllins University website didn’t work. They learned that the Better Business Bureau lists Corllins as “unaccredited.” And they encountered multiple online references to Corllins as a “diploma mill” — a place that sells worthless degrees.

While the students say they were warned not to be nosy, “There were some things that just didn’t quite add up,” one told The Washington Post.

After the students published a critical article, Robertson initially defended her background; however, when the school administration asked her to produce transcripts for her undergraduate work, she did not. Instead, she resigned.

If the student journalists who were planning a routine “meet the new principal” feature hadn’t tried to verify their source’s claims, they would have missed an impressive story.

Verify What Your Sources Claim, Continued

Journalist Greg Toppo recalls a Saturday afternoon at the Santa Fe New Mexican when he got a phone call from “a very distraught woman” reporting the death of a relative. He told her he was sorry to hear of her loss, and asked her to send in the details for an obituary. Later, he noticed her fax included the line “donations should be sent to the New Mexico AIDS Center.”

Toppo had never heard of this organization, but there was a “NM Aids Services” in the phone book. Was that what the caller meant? He tried to check with her, but she had faxed from a copy shop and hadn’t left any contact info.

After a little more investigation into the life of the man who was the subject of the obituary, a different story emerged.

Headshot of Greg Toppo.

Greg Toppo is the education writer for USA Today. He tells a story about how digging for details in what seemed to be a routine story prevented an embarrassing mistake.

Well, it seems this guy was married twice and is survived by a longtime companion. The editor, it turns out, knows the longtime companion, leaves a message on her machine, so sorry to hear about it, please give me a call, etc. Meanwhile, she suggests, why don’t I try to get the second wife on the phone. She lives in Santa Fe.

[…]

The long and short of it is that the second ex-wife tells me that the guy had a girlfriend in Austin, Texas, with whom he just broke up, plus the longtime companion in Santa Fe: two girlfriends in long-distance relationships for months, and the Texas one just found out about the Santa Fe one. I called Austin info, and sure enough the fax was sent from Austin, not D.C.

The jilted girlfriend made up the whole thing. We finally got the Santa Fe girlfriend on the phone, she verified it. The “deceased” called an hour later and did the same, with great embarrassment. —Poynter

Toppo could have just left out the name of the charity, but digging into that detail brought a whole lot of issues to light (and saved the paper from unwittingly printing “fake news”).

Knowing When It’s Time to Duck

When I was an undergraduate I had a professor who sometimes told stories about his wife.

Stylized silhouette of a dancing couple in fancy clothes.One day at a fancy department event I saw him holding hands and dancing with an elegant woman.

Later, I ran into her at the refreshment table. If I had been covering the story as a reporter, I would have gotten her name and asked how she was connected to the event. As it was, we just exchanged pleasantries.

The next day in the hallway I said to my prof, “At the party, I enjoyed chatting with your wife.”

He froze. “My wife was there?”

I hadn’t verified my assumption about the woman’s identity, so I’d have been better off ducking that detail.

I might have said something like “I didn’t catch the name of the woman in the blue sweater, but she suggested I ask you about [topic].”

Verify or Duck: A Reporting Scenario

Let’s imagine you’re a reporter assigned to cover a conflict between neighborhood children playing in a public courtyard and residents who complain the children are too loud.

So for, you have gathered:

  • quotes from a resident calling the children “a nuisance,”
  • quotes from a different resident who says “I love hearing their happy little voices,”
  • quotes from various parents defending their children (no big surprise there, that’s what we expect parents to do)
  • and a neutral description of details you actually observed when you visited the courtyard:

Catalog picture of a little girl wearing a Wonder Woman costume.On a recent Thursday afternoon, three preschoolers played quietly in a sandbox. Nearby, a girl in a Wonder Woman costume chased a barefoot, bowtie-sporting boy around a picnic table shouting, “Jacob, I want to kiss you!”

Let’s imagine that while you are covering this story, a resident jumps out of her doorway and shouts that she’s called police dozens of time to report property damage, and that it’s these unsupervised children who caused it.

Let’s further imagine that when you ask for her name, she says she’s afraid to give it because she fears for her safety.

What do you do report? Here are some options.

  1. Police have received dozens of reports that unsupervised children were damaging property.
  2. A long-time resident who monitors activity in the courtyard has faithfully kept local police informed about the criminal antics of the unsupervised children who are terrorizing the community.
  3. A red-faced screaming oldster who refused to give her name has been harassing local children by filing a constant stream of police reports. Little Suzy McCutiepie, 5, was too scared to play in the courtyard yesterday, and cried herself to sleep instead.
  4. A local woman called police dozens of times because children were damaging property.
  5. A local woman called police dozens of times to report that children were damaging property.
  6. A local woman claimed that she called police dozens of times to accuse neighborhood children of damaging property.
  7. A local woman said she called police dozens of times to report property damage.
  8. None of the above.

Here is my feedback on each option.

Bad Example1) Police have received dozens of reports that unsupervised children…
In our scenario, your source is the anonymous woman who spoke to you.

How do you know police received reports? If the police confirm that reports have been filed, can you verify that this particular anonymous woman filed dozens of them?

What does “unsupervised children” mean? A 17-yo driving to her part-time job at the local library? A 10-year-old minding his 6-year-old sister? A six-year-old whose parent is sitting nearby but talking on the phone? Is “unsupervised” an official term applied by the police officers who took the reports, or does the word just reflect one woman’s opinion?

Bad Example2) A long-time resident has faithfully kept local police informed
This phrasing is unfair to the kids because it confers authority on their accuser.
Bad Example3) A red-faced screaming woman who refused to give her name has been harassing local children…
This version is unfair to the woman.
Bad Example4) A local woman called police dozens of times because children were damaging property.
It’s good to present the source neutrally as “a local woman,” and also good to leave out the vague term “unsupervised.”

Perhaps you saw property damage in the courtyard, and perhaps you saw unsupervised children in the courtyard. But putting “because children were damaging property” in your story asserts a connection.

Did you witness children damaging the property? Do you have confirmation from police that neighborhood children have been cited for vandalism? In America, we are innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Do you know for a fact that any of these children went before a judge and were found responsible for criminal acts?

With the info we’ve encountered so far in our our scenario, we can’t confirm such details.

Bad Example5) A local woman called police dozens of times to report that children were damaging property.
The phrasing “report that children were damaging property” does a little better job clarifying that this is the woman’s claim, rather than a fact the reporter has observed.

We regularly read about politicians and celebrities lashing out their rivals, but in our scenario we have a random person — who won’t give you her name — accusing a group of children of misbehaving.

If you are a human being, you have probably noticed that sometimes when people are upset, they make accusations that turn out to be misunderstandings, exaggerations, or not exactly the full truth.

It’s not your job as a reporter to take sides on such disputes.

If you can’t verify her accusations, duck. Report the details you can confirm.

Bad Example6) A local woman claimed that she called police dozens of times to accuse neighborhood children of damaging property.
The word “claimed” predisposes the reader to disbelieve the source. Likewise, the word “accuse” makes her seem aggressive.

But in truth, we don’t actually know how many times the woman called police.

  • Maybe she called police 17 times, in which case “dozens of times” is an exaggeration.
  • Maybe she called her apartment’s uniformed security guard 23 times. (In that case “police” is inaccurate, and “dozens” is a slight stretch.)

In fact, until we check with the police, we should omit the whole issue of police involvement.

In our scenario, the woman referred to “unsupervised children,” which is consistent with her opinion that the children are at fault.

  • But in this version of the story, the reporter refers to “neighborhood children.”
  • Do you know for a fact that every child who plays in the courtyard is from this neighborhood?

Duck it. Just call them “children in the courtyard.”

Iffy Example7) A local woman said she called police dozens of times to report property damage.
This is a factual statement, presented in neutral language. So far, so good.

Where you there when she called police dozens of times? How do you know what she did?

Remember… verify or duck.

Good Example8) None of the above.
In the scenario, our source is clearly upset, and she won’t give you her name. She’s helped you to understand that emotions are running high, and she’s given you a line of inquiry to pursue.

But you’re not ready to publish your story yet.

What are some other options?

A) Ask other residents for the anonymous woman’s name, so you can publish it along with her accusations.
B) Tell the anonymous source you’ll print her complaint if she provides her name.
C) Thank your source for the anonymous tip, then ask the local police whether any property damage reports have been filed recently.

Feedback on further options

Bad ExampleA) Ask other residents for the anonymous woman’s name, so you can publish it along with her accusations.
In our scenario, the woman has told you she fears for her safety.

Individual citizens who carry out a public act (running for office, attending a rally on public property, etc.) choose to give up some of their privacy. The police release the names of people who are charged with crimes, and people often reveal personal information about themselves in their social media accounts.

But this woman has spoken to you from the front door of her own home. It would be an invasion of her privacy if you were to publish her name against her will.

We could certainly ask her to reconsider, but in our scenario so far, we haven’t been able to confirm her claims. Attaching her name to these claims won’t automatically make the claims any more accurate.

Bad ExampleB) Tell the anonymous source you’ll print her complaint if she provides her name.
In our scenario, we haven’t confirmed the woman’s statements. Having her name won’t automatically make her claims more accurate.

Reporters can’t actually promise exactly what details what will or won’t go into their stories. After the reporter files the story, an editor may change it.

Good ExampleC) Thank your source for the anonymous tip, then ask the local police whether any property damage reports have been filed recently.
Perhaps you can’t verify whether the children caused the vandalism. But as a citizen, you have the right to access certain police records (such as including 911 recordings, the names and addresses of people arrested, etc.).

The police are the best source for information about police reports; what a woman says she told police is a less credible source.

The local police may not be enthusiastic about helping you, so it’s best to do your homework (and know what kinds of police records are considered public in your state).

Final Notes: Respecting Privacy and Taking Sides

If you catch a lawyer or a politician exaggerating to the point of lying, there’s no reason to go easy on them. They knew what exactly what they were doing, they took a calculated risk, and you caught them. (The inconsistency is newsworthy. Give them a chance to clarify their position, and make their response part of the story.)

But ordinary people who aren’t used to being in the news may be speaking while injured, or grieving, or terrified. These inexperienced sources may mistake your patient attention for a willingness to take their side. Cut them some slack.

If you cherry-pick details to make one side look good, or if you only approach sources you think are likely to agree with your side, that’s cheating.

Not every story hinges on conflict. Contextualize differences without sensationalizing, but without automatically defaulting to a compromise.

  • In a story on a kitten beauty pageant, you don’t have to insert controversy by interviewing a dog owner.
  • In a story about a scheduled event that attracts 500, you don’t have to give “equal time” to 5 protesters.
  • If a group calls for an illegal act of violence, you aren’t obligated to amplify that message by repeating it.

It’s unfair for a reporter to take sides in news story.

This does not mean you are obligated to provide a vehicle for sources to air their personal grievances or hatred, or to repeat statements that your investigation finds to be untrue.