Determining the Line between Fact and Fiction

By Talley, Olive | Nieman Reports, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Determining the Line between Fact and Fiction


Talley, Olive, Nieman Reports


In broadcast news, compelling TV and good journalism can coexist.

A national cable television correspondent was covering murder trial of a man already serving time on a prior conviction. With a live report minutes away, she asked a young assistant to find out when the defendant was eligible for parole on the prior.

The young woman dutifully made phone calls and relayed her findings. When the on-air reporter asked for the source of the information, the young assistant proudly cited the local newspaper. She was dumbfounded when the correspondent sent her back to call court sources with direct knowledge of the case.

This incident came to mind as I read Kovach and Rosenstiel's chapter on the process of verifying information. They argue that journalism, as an institution, has failed to adhere to a system for testing the reliability of its reporting. "The modern press culture generally is weakening the methodology of verification journalists have developed," the authors write. "Technology is part of it."

After 25 years of reporting that spans radio, UPI, newspapers and, since 1995, network television newsmagazines, I share the authors' concerns about slippage in the fact-finding process in journalism and how it can erode our credibility. Unfortunately, anyone pondering this complex issue in the context of broadcast journalism gets no help from Kovach and Rosenstiel. The authors fail to include insightful or substantive examples from television or Internet news reporting in their analysis of the verification process in "modern press culture."

The anecdote mentioned above illustrates a troubling phenomenon in network TV. While seasoned reporters fill the top ranks, many of the support staffers--who actually do much of the reporting--have little or no journalism training.

Although I've long admired Bill Kovach for his integrity and advocacy for traditional news values, I'm disappointed that he and Rosenstiel did not lend their experience and thoughtfulness to an examination of this and other issues in broadcast media. Instead of citing aired pieces in which techniques of verification have been blurred, they point to TV "docu-drama" as an example of adding fiction to fact for better storytelling. I've never heard anyone in TV news use the term. The authors write: "If a siren rang out during the taping of a TV story, and for dramatic effect it is moved from one scene to another ... what was once a fact becomes a fiction."

It would have been more useful to discuss a case like this: As a producer, I build an opening sequence for a crime story by showing close-ups of yellow crime scene tape with the sound of sirens underneath. …

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