Case Study: Coherence, Transparency and Verification
As discussed in The Complete Guide to Article Writing, journalism is a practice based on three cardinal tenets: coherence, transparency and verification.
Coherence simply means providing options. A coherent explanation presents options in a prudent manner. If only one side of an issue were presented, there’s an intrinsic bias. The journalist should strive to present attributable options to the reader.
With respect to transparency, the journalist should disclose any conflicts of interest that may interfere with reporting. We can’t have journalists representing source interests, and then passing off whatever is reported on as journalism or news. For example, if you’re a finance journalist who is consulting for a hedge fund, and then you turn around and plug the hedge fund in your column without mentioning any association, there’s a conflict of interest there.
Verification and attribution are closely related concepts. In order to be verifiable, information must be attributed to some reputable source either written or human. For example, if you’re writing about the economy, it’s great to get a quotation from an economist like the Chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke. (Always try to get the best interviews possible!) If writing about medicine, it’s good to base your reporting on peer-reviewed sources like The New England Journal of Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine or Lancet.
Whenever a publication or program that functions under the auspices of journalism makes “mistakes,” these mistakes can often be framed in terms of verification, transparency and coherence. For example, in October 2013, 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan interviewed security officer David Davies who erroneously claimed to be at the site of the Benghazi embassy attacks in September 2012. Davies also claimed various superhuman heroics which were untrue. In no time, we learned first from the Washington Post and then other places that Davies was lying. Logan also tied the attack to Al Qaida which was false.
If Logan, her executive producer, Jeff Fager, and CBS had been vigilant with respect to verification, transparency and coherence, the fallout and repercussions from this untrue yet juicy scoop could have been avoided. With respect to verification, all they needed to do was dig a little deeper into FBI and other records to figure out that Davies was lying. With respect to transparency, CBS shouldn’t have had Logan reporting on the incident at all in light of previous comments she made calling for “revenge” for the Benghazi attacks. Additionally, Davies should never have been interviewed by CBS because he was promoting his memoirs with publisher Simon & Shuster, a subsidiary of CBS. Ultimately, with respect to coherence, the option that Logan and 60 Minutes reported was untrue and the story should have been scrapped before it aired, or the “real story” using accurate sources of information should have been reported on.