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If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check It Out

Verification is the first thing you learn in J-school, and it's why journalists used to be trusted. From Day 1, it was hammered into you to take nothing on faith or at face value.

"When in doubt, check it out. Even if your mother says she loves you, check it out."

Everything you wrote for publication had to be independently verified, fact-checked, double-checked and cq'd, either by you or by your first editor. CQ = notation for correct, and was inserted into the copy so that your editor and the copy editor, whose job was to backstop you and your editor, knew you'd done your job thoroughly.

Yes, Virginia, once upon a time there really were layers and layers of editors and fact-checking, sourcing and verification, endless challenges to your written statements. You couldn't just make things up, like Glenny does, or you'd hear a copy editor (like me) bellowing at you across the newsroom:

"The sun rises in the east? SAYS WHO?"
"Lemons are yellow? SAYS WHO?"
"Your mother loves you? SAYS WHO?"

Extreme examples, but you get the idea. Did the reporter merely repeat what someone said, or did the reporter do some independent research? Verification, onerous yet so essential.

Newspapers still attempt verification but it gets more difficult the more editors are wiped out as a corporate cost-cutting measure. I can't speak for television news, and don't get me started on 24/7 fear-mongering pretend-news. God help us.

Anyway, this is the thing: We should know precisely where information comes from so we can consider for ourselves whether it is credible.

Consider the source. The source determines the credibility.

Chocolate is good for you. Says who? The Hershey company. Oh... really?
Smoking isn't all that bad for you. Says who? Philip Morris. Oh... really?
Red meat is essential three times a week. Says who? The Beef Council. Oh... Oh. Oh, now I see.

They would say that, wouldn't they?

And because every waking moment we are pelted with self-serving horse apples (a k a "advertising") on TV, the Internet, radio, billboards, buses, newspapers, phone books, phone calls, political posturing, texts and all manner of other incoming, we have resorted to believing only what we agree with or -- like me -- we no longer believe anything.

I got thinking about this because of peanuts.

On a whim, I bought a small bag of sprouted peanuts recently at a farmers market. Yum. If you've never tasted them, they're softer and more flavorful than dried, and I've read and heard they're more nutritious than dried. There's a whole industry that promotes raw food and sprouted food as being more nutritious. Seems true, but I wanted the whole story, accurate and complete.

Googled it, got tons of returns, of course. Pffffft. First 10 pages of returns were mostly blogs, stores, raw food enthusiasts, natural food salespeople, advertising, etc., sources that benefit from pushing the idea that the thing they sell is good for you.

Thought, who can be absolutely trusted for accurate food information? Seems important enough to warrant a trustworthy source. Who's credible? Encyclopedia? Limited info. Wikipedia? Ditto, plus not well-sourced. The Food and Drug Administration, maybe. A government institution? Hmm. Do I trust it? At least I know its job is to keep accurate information out there, and it doesn't benefit either way from challenging food and drug companies on their claims.

I'd probably trust a knowledgeable friend or relative, but I'd still ask for their source. (Still looking for clear information, btw. If you know, please share.)

Anyway, this isn't just journalism training, and it isn't just peanuts.

It's good common sense that we should keep up our guard and consider the source anytime we hear or read something that can't be -- shouldn't be -- taken on faith.

"Says who?"

Always question. Be skeptical. Verify, verify, verify.



P.S. Independent studies have shown that small (!) amounts of chocolate are indeed good for you. And if there's one thing you can take on faith, it's that your mother really does love you.

7 comments:

  1. You had me at peanuts.

    You are correct, though, that we as news consumers must be aware of source because we as news providers have lost those layers of backup editing. I'm sharing this one around. Thanks for the reminder.

    -Jas.

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  2. I only wish every worker at every daily newspaper could have read this before they printed all the lies that led to the current Iraq war. Or basically any kind of political coverage since. Another important one that you touched on: Follow the money. Who profits from this?

    Tony

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  3. Great article Kelly. I'm not a journalist, but I try to think like one. The trend you mention distresses me. So does the fact that emotionally charged language seems to be showing up more often in news reports. Thanks for a great article. Joanne Lobeski Snyder

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