“You can’t handle the truth,” a character played by Jack Nicholson famously proclaimed in the movie “A Few Good Men.” The same can be said for all too many reporters.
Getting to the truth takes work. It’s time-consuming. It involves digging through paperwork, archives and files. It means more interviews and more sources. It requires tough questions, often of authority figures. And it can be very unpopular.
But the truth is out there (thank you, “X-Files”).
In “The Elements of Journalism,” authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel suggest looking at journalistic truth as “a process … or continuing journey toward understanding – that begins with the first story and builds over time. For instance, the first news stories signal a new event or trend. They may begin with an account of something simple – a meeting or a car accident. The time and place of the accident, the damage done, the types of vehicles, arrests, unusual weather or road conditions – in effect, the physical externalities of the case – are facts that can be recorded and checked.
“Once they have verified the facts,” Kovach and Rosenstiel continue, “reporters try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation.”
Then comes the second story, in which sources respond and fill in the blanks. That leads to a third story. And so on. “Context is added in each successive layer,” the authors write.
It strikes me that this wouldn’t be a bad way to teach student journalists how to move from reporting news to finding truth. A series, each story building upon the last, might be less intimidating a prospect than a ginormous investigative piece.