Standards of evidence in journalism

Req: A, E, N, S

Reading over the recent discussion of Dan Rather’s lawsuit against CBS, two statements stand out with regard to the memos at the center of Memogate/Rathergate:

1) Rather, in a radio interview, said: “To this day, no one has ever proven that the documents are not what they purported to be.”

2) CBS News, in a statement, said: “To this day, no one has been able to authenticate the documents in question.”

The history behind those two statements notwithstanding, they present an interesting dilemma with regard to the standard of evidence in good journalism.

Should the media run something questionable because it seems true and no one can prove it isn’t? If they do this, they are bound to print some things that are false.

Or should the media reject something questionable, even if it seems true, because no one can prove it is true? If they do this, they will no doubt withhold some things that are true.

That may seem a bit dramatic, but it is precisely the question that’s being debated. Consider this exchange between ABC News’ Brian Ross and Mary Mapes, who produced the Bush memo story for CBS.

BRIAN ROSS: Do you still think that story was true?

MARY MAPES: The story? Absolutely.

BRIAN ROSS: This seems remarkable to me that you would sit here now and say you still find that story to be up to your standards.

MARY MAPES: I’m perfectly willing to believe those documents are forgeries if there’s proof that I haven’t seen.

BRIAN ROSS: But isn’t it the other way around? Don’t you have to prove they’re authentic?

MARY MAPES: Well, I think that’s what critics of the story would say. I know more now than I did then, and I think, I think they have not been proved to be false yet.

BRIAN ROSS: Have they proved to be authentic though? Isn’t that really what journalists do?

MARY MAPES: No, I don’t think that’s the standard.

[Continued reading Mapes Interview]

Is it better to risk printing falsehoods or to risk withholding the truth? It’s never quite so black and white. However, when serious doubts have been raised about a set of documents and those documents cannot independently authenticated, journalists do no service to their audience or themselves by presenting them as evidence.

Dan Rather has earned wide respect among journalists, winning a number of Emmy awards and Peabody awards as CBS Evening News anchor. So one shares the chagrin expressed by many of his colleagues that he would choose this field upon which to wage what might be his final battle.

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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.

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