Reporting the Facts, Commentary by Dr. Larry Burriss



Reporting Facts: Dr. Larry Burriss

I remember many years ago when we first got cable. In addition to the regular channels, the Associated Press had a service that streamed the news all day. It was the actual wire service text, like in a newspaper office, so you got the major stories every hour or so, then a few minutes later a notice, “add one” or “add two” would come across with additional information.
Reporting Facts: Dr. Larr Burriss
What was particular interesting was the information was almost always all facts, not speculation or opinion. And the facts were backed up with attribution: who said what to whom. Jump to last week. The web site BuzzFeed runs an unsubstantiated story about possible obstruction of justice. No attribution, no verification, and, perhaps most importantly, no follow-up from other news organizations. But lest you think I’m merely longing for the “good old days,” I checked a number of stories about the BuzzFeed story, and most of them held the Washington Post’s 1970s Watergate reporting as an exemplar of how investigative journalism is supposed to be done. For starters, almost all reporters covering Watergate were just that, reporters. They gathered information, usually from documents, then interviewed multiple sources about those documents. Rarely, if ever, did you find reporters arguing with sources. That was the role of commentators on Sunday morning talk shows. And reporters didn’t rely on just one source. In some instances, stories were actually stopped because two or more sources couldn’t be found to verify details. Another problem today is the multiplicity of news outlets, and the 24 hour all-news cycle, both of which lead to speculations and assumptions, rumors and gossip. Notice also how all-news operations rely on their own sources and talking heads, none of whom give us any real information. Again, it’s all speculation and gossip. The credo of journalism used to be, “Get the story first, but first get it right.” And the “story” is just that: facts backed up by more facts, not rumors backed by speculation. I’m Larry Burriss.

(Dr. Larry Burriss is a professor of journalism, teaches introductory and media law courses. At the graduate level he teaches quantitative research methods and media law. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (B.A. in broadcast journalism, M.A. in journalism), the University of Oklahoma (M.A. in human relations), Ohio University (Ph.D. in journalism) and Concord Law School (J.D.). He has worked in print and broadcast news and public relations, and has published extensively in both academic and popular publications. He has won first place in the Tennessee Associated Press Radio Contest nine times. Dr. Burriss’ publications and presentations include studies of presidential press conferences, NASA photography, radio news, legal issues related to adolescent use of social networking sites, legal research, and Middle Earth.

Dr. Burriss has served as director of the School of Journalism, dean of the College of Mass Communication and president of the MTSU Faculty Senate. He was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to serve on the Tennessee Board of Regents. He was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and served on active duty in Mali, Somalia, Bosnia, Central America, Europe and the Pentagon.)