Verification as a battle for professional survival: analyzing journalists' discourse on a core aspect of identity in a time of crisis

TitleVerification as a battle for professional survival: analyzing journalists' discourse on a core aspect of identity in a time of crisis
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Shapiro, I., C. Brin, L. Marshall, and P. Spoel
Affiliation (1st Author)Ryerson University
Section or WGJournalism Research and Education Section
DateFri 28 June
Slot CodeJRE F4a
Slot Code (Keyword)JRE F4a
Time of Session16:00-17:30
Session TitleProfessional Journalism in Times of Crisis Theme III: Professional Journalism
Submission ID4945

   A concern for accuracy through verification lies near the heart of journalists' professional identity. (Bogart 2004; Deuze 2005; Kovach and Rosenstiel 2007; Shapiro 2010) We conducted qualitative interviews with 28 award-winning and semi-randomly selected newspaper reporters to probe their approaches to verification and, earlier, reported that their array of methods and principles comprised a "norm of compromise." (Brin et. al. 2012) We have now conducted a discourse analysis of 14 of these Canadian journalists' descriptions of verification efforts.   Participants’ allusions to verification were often almost reverential in tone, characterized by superlatives such as “very important,” “critical” and “extremely necessary” to gain audiences' trust. This importance was emphasized through hyperbole (it is “99 per cent of the job;” the standard is “100 per cent" accuracy; facts must be "triple-checked"), synonymia (reporting must be “accurate and correct and factual”), and catch phrases ("when in doubt, leave it out;" “verified six ways to Sunday”).   With great frequency, participants chose battle metaphors, making verification less an epistemological challenge than a conflict with sources, colleagues, managers, and publics. Reporters presented themselves attackers on information "barriers" and “blocks;” information-gathering as “reconnaissance;” verification as a “line of defence.” Reporters described themselves as "rolling with the punches" and encountering a "bloodbath" when verification went wrong. Documents must be "ironclad;" tape recordings make journalists feel "safer." Enemies included some within the news domain: one reporter went “ballistic” when a copy-editor made a mistake; without accuracy, a journalist’s career would be “doomed.” Increasing job demands were seen as a threat to accuracy: “You’ve just got balls coming at you from every different direction.” The internet was both an ally (providing new verification sources) and a threat (fostering inaccurate information). Journalists "live in fear" of making mistakes; they described themselves as "paranoid" and "nervous" with respect to accuracy.    Adversarial terms were common in alluding to sources, who were "confronted" and "chased" in order to “wrest” information. Adversarial catch-phrases included: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out," and, "If a journalist wants a friend, he gets a dog." (Sometimes the adversarial terminology sprang from sports rather than war: “We were playing a game.") Still, some dealings were more considerate: with fragile sources, a reporter shouldn't just “whip" out a tape recorder and “shoot" questions; rather, reporters must sometimes listen "really sensitively,” establish "rapport" and "trust," and "feel intuitively."    This discursive warlikeness came as a surprise following our prior finding that journalists are willing to compromise on factual certainty in all but a highly defined set of fact types, and the discourse highlighted the extent to which discursive expressions of journalistic identity vary between verifier and story-teller. We conclude that this complex professional identity accommodates internal contradictions that will challenge journalists' collective claim to a distinct place within an increasingly competitive news ecosystem.

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