Getting Burned: How Much Can You Depend on the Accuracy of What They Tell You?

By Jack Limpert

attachmentBlaine Harden, a highly regarded journalist who worked 28 years for the Washington Post and has written three books, was blindsided in January when the main character in his third book, Escape from Camp 14, admitted that he had made up some of the central facts about his life in a North Korean prison camp.

In an NPR story about Harden’s book problem, Frank Sesno, a longtime CNN correspondent, now head of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, says journalists always need to consider the veracity of their source. “Are they for real? Is this person legitimate?”

And if they’re for real, how much can you depend on the accuracy of what they tell you?

David Maraniss, also a longtime Washington Post reporter and book author, collected some of his best journalism in a 2010 book, Into the Story: A Writer’s Journey Through Life, Politics, Sports, and Loss. In the book’s introduction, Maraniss writes about the truthfulness and accuracy of sources:

“In writing history, even recent history, it is always important to bear in mind the limits of human memory. Bill Clinton could remember thousands of disparate facts (a telephone number he hadn’t dialed in thirty years; the name of a friend’s little sister that he was seeing for the first time in decades), though he had a striking tendency to forget important things about his own life. Vince Lombardi, for all his attention to detail as the great football coach of the Green Bay Packers, proved terribly frustrating for W.C. Heinz, who wrote the classic Run to Daylight! under Lombardi’s byline, because of his inability to bring back incidents from his past….

“Most people have worse memories than Bill Clinton and better memories than Vince Lombardi. But their memories generally fail when they try to recount the precise chronology of events, something particularly important to writers of nonfiction narrative….

“As any cop will tell you, you can ask four witnesses to a traffic accident what happened minutes earlier and you will get four different versions of the same event. The differences only become exaggerated with time, and the accounts less reliable. When someone says this happened, then that, then that, usually they get it wrong. It is best to go back to contemporaneous documents—letters, logs, calendars, diaries, after-action reports, internal investigations, and oral histories—to piece together a reliable chronology.

“What you can usually depend on from interviews, Lombardi notwithstanding, are sharp and random fragments of memory. When a soldier recalls that just before the first enemy shot was fired in a jumble ambush, he had stopped to cop a smoke, and the guy next to him was opening a can of peaches, and another guy was taking a piss, I believe it. Those are the vivid little things–the sensations–that are etched permanently in the mind.”
In 40 years at the Washingtonian, I worked with probably a thousand writers. We put a lot of time into fact-checking the details of stories and there were very few cases of a writer getting badly burned by a source.

As an editor I was always trying to figure out how much I  could trust the fairness and accuracy of the writer. I worried less about details and more about how much of a straight shooter the writer was.

I often remembered a New York City cab ride in the early 1990s with Oz Elliott, the former editor of Newsweek who then was teaching at Columbia. He said he was seeing a shift in journalism from a passion for good reporting to more stories that had lots of attitude but not enough reporting. He saw attitude as a cheap and easy way for a writer to get attention but not an editorial strategy that would keep readers.
I asked Dick Babcock, the longtime editor of Chicago magazine who now teaches and writes books, about accuracy and fairness:

“When I edited a difficult story, I was usually mostly concerned about the writer’s overall take on the subject, the point of view—did he or she come away with a responsible and defensible analysis.

“In terms of memories, the combination of diligent reporter and diligent fact-checker usually made me comfortable. Maraniss is right on the money with the comment that the little side details are what often stick in memory—they work the same way for readers in a great story.”
Here’s what Larry Van Dyne, a longtime Washingtonian writer known for the quality of his reporting, says about how much he trusted the accuracy of sources:

“Beyond self-aggrandizement (or excessive humility) and intentional deception, people often cannot remember events or their own emotions clearly, having spent years reworking old experiences in their minds.

“I got a good lesson in this while doing a profile of the management guru Peter Drucker. He was getting on in years and had just published a lively memoir. When I went to interview him at his home in California, some of the stories he told me were substantially different from versions in the book. I decided to go with the version he put out in the book, on grounds that the printed word may be more accurate than the spoken.

“It’s important to keep going back and back to sources. I sometimes went to some of the people in a piece three or four times; I interviewed some at least ten times. You need that to straighten out chronology, force people to keep going over the same ground, to press people on contradictions, and to discover hidden or forgotten information. I always ask myself whether the story I am getting is plausible. Plausibility is a rough but important test.”
And here’s Harry Jaffe, another highly regarded Washingtonian writer, on reporting:

“I used a variety of techniques to make sure my retelling of past events was accurate, spot-on exactly as they took place. On every story, my first goal was accuracy. So I started with the two source rule. I tried to get dialogue and narrative events from at least two people who witnessed the events from different perspectives. I often relied on public documents, especially affidavits and testimony from court cases. Keep in mind that people who testify in court are sworn in to tell the truth. They still lie, but less often.

“Like most writers, I interview and re-interview. I also feel I  have a good sense of which sources are giving me an accurate portrayal and which ones are embellishing—what you call having a good b.s. detector.

“For the book Dream City I reconstructed a narrative over 20 years and packed it with dialogue. Not one person, even Marion Barry, disputed the retelling of events or conversations.”
For the record, Blaine Harden was a Washingtonian senior writer in 1983-84 before going overseas for the Washington Post.

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