Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Wisdom of Buying a House . . . for Journalism

It's conventional wisdom (especially in this economy): you never buy a house on the first visit. In fact, it's smart to go back a second and third time, to look closely at each room, the shingles on the roof, the pipes in the basement. You ask questions, lots of them, about everything from the foundation and the structure to the neighborhood and the heating bills. You won't really know the place unless you look closely at each part, line up the details and decide if the whole picture is worth the investment.

The same can be true of journalism, for both those who report the stories and those who read them. Just as there are many parts of a house, so are there multiple sides of a story. To write one with only a few sources is the equivilant of signing a mortgage from the sidewalk without ever stepping foot in the place. And to read a story and believe it simply because it's in print (or online), well, is like buying a house from a photo simply because it looked nice.

Here's what I mean: A young journalist recently showed me an article in a local paper that troubled her. She was bothered initially not by the reporting but by the subject: a man she'd interviewed and respected had been arrested on charges of stealing. She couldn't believe he'd do such a thing but there it was in print. The details in the story, though, didn't add up; only one disgruntled source was quoted and information about his employment and character—which she knew first hand—wasn't mentioned. It was a sloppy piece of reporting, we decided, and a good opportunity to remember that every story has many 'rooms.'

In a culture crushed by instant news, and reporters competing for more breaks with less support, I worry that we're getting a lot more sidewalk glances, if you will, than we are wise investments. What we need—from both editors and readers—is patience. Patience to look. To ask. To dig. And then to look again, so we get as much of the information about each side of the place as possible. Because hurrying through a story will surely mean we've missed the details that matter. And that could lead to a crisis just as serious as the housing mess we're in now.

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