AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1996

Spelling Out What You Don't Know   

When you can't nail down an aspect of a story, is it a good idea to share that information with readers and viewers?

By Sinéad OBrien
Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

F OR MONTHS THE INTERNET and talk radio have been abuzz with the notion that the CIA was to blame for the crack cocaine epidemic that has devastated the nation's African American neighborhoods.

The furor was triggered by a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News about drug dealing by supporters of the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contras.

Only one problem: While they may have given that impression, the stories never stated explicitly that the CIA condoned or even knew about the drug deals. The series has been criticized for, among other things, leaving the impression that the CIA was well aware of the narcotics trafficking of its allies.

In hindsight, Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos says the paper should have included a paragraph saying that it could not determine whether the CIA was directly involved. "The only thing thus far I'll say I would have done differently," he says, "is to say to people what we didn't find is direct CIA involvement."

Which raises a question: Should news organizations on occasion spell out what they don't know as a way of helping readers, viewers and listeners avoid reaching the wrong conclusions?

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Bill Dedman thinks so. In the wake of the controversy over the San Jose series, Dedman, the Associated Press' director of computer-assisted reporting, suggested in an online journalism discussion group that news organizations might profit from the practice. By saying what's not proven or not known, he says, journalists can make their stories more solid and lessen the likelihood of misleading readers.

"It makes the story stronger because the reader trusts the part you know is strong," says Dedman, a former director of Investigative Reporters & Editors.

A number of journalists, including some highly respected investigative reporters and editors, see merit in the idea.

"People will assume certain things unless it's spelled out," says Miami Herald Investigations Editor Jim Savage, who has directed many major investigative projects. Readers will make judgments based on the information before them, he says, and if there are holes, they'll do the filling. Obviously, investigative pieces emphasize what has been learned, Savage says, but this additional step would help readers by getting what is not known out on the table.

Jeff Gerth, a veteran New York Times investigative reporter who broke the Whitewater story, agrees that explicitly saying what is uncertain can strengthen rather than weaken an investigative story. Gerth cites the Mercury News series as an example. If the way the story is framed might lead to a misconception, he says, "you should say what the story doesn't say" up high in the piece.

And Ceppos, in the eye of the storm, says he now sees value in making a disclaimer paragraph standard procedure in an effort to "avoid unintentional readings."

Rosemary Armao, who recently stepped down as IRE's executive director (see Bylines, page 9), and Dedman say including a paragraph that establishes the unknown parts of the story is akin to having a conversation with the reader, making clear the boundaries of what you're saying. When it comes to the question of what has yet to be nailed down, Dedman says, "editors and reporters have the conversation all the time." Armao adds, "It's a natural part of reporting, so why not let readers in on it?"

The way readers respond to investigative stories prompted Dedman to suggest adopting the practice. He says it's been his experience that readers often reach conclusions that might be implied by a story but aren't flatly asserted or backed up.

"Many of those responses, from what I've seen, are often directed at what the reader thinks we might mean, or imply, by the facts we present," he says. "But often we don't mean that at all."

Dedman says it's difficult to take a tough story seriously if you're wrestling with exactly what the writer is trying to say. Having one graph that states it all simply could clear up any confusion, he says. "That paragraph saying, 'We don't know this...but we do know this' can be disarming enough to allow the message to get through," he says.

Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, says the disclaimer paragraph is worth considering, but cautions that it is hardly a panacea. "A lot of misinterpretation of news content has more to do with what the reader brings to the story or what agenda groups want to follow than newspapers not being clear," he says. "Never underestimate the capacity of readers to get it wrong."

That being said, bending over backwards to be precise can only help. If there's anything journalists can do to make an investigative piece more understandable, they should do it, says Seattle Times reporter Deborah Nelson, a former IRE president. Saying what you don't know is a good practice when there could be confusion about a story, she says.

But it's not always that cut-and-dried, argues the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Mary Hargrove. A veteran investigative journalist, Hargrove finds a gray area when it comes to having to say what's not known. "I don't think it's a bad idea, but you'd have to have a really compelling reason to go to print without a key piece," she says. The danger, she adds, is that readers are going to ask why you don't know.

That's why some journalists think saying what's not in a story is a bad idea. These naysayers hold that an investigative piece is not finished until every bit of information has been tracked down.

"As a general rule, absolutely not," says Donald L. Barlett, the coauthor of many acclaimed series in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It would mean the reporter hasn't done the work."

Pam Zekman, an investigative reporter at WBBM-TV in Chicago, agrees that it would reflect badly on the reporter, and says if a story is written correctly the main elements should be obvious.

"Those concepts and thoughts should be incorporated in the piece, and if not, there's something wrong with it," she says. "I can't see separating out a laundry list of what we don't know."

Eileen Welsome, a former Albuquerque Tribune reporter now writing a book, says that a story would be weakened by including caveats. "If an investigative piece is so shaky and tenuous that editors and reporters feel they must use this device, then the story is not solid enough to put in print," says Welsome, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her stories on the federal government's medical experiments using radioactive plutonium on humans.

Welsome warns that the disclaimer paragraph could become a crutch or a cover for weak stories.

But this is hardly a new concept in broadcast journalism, according to Jacquee Petchel, executive producer/special projects for CBS in Miami. She says stating up front what's not known is a standard in the world of television reporting.

But, Petchel says, if an investigative piece gives viewers the wrong idea, it's a negative reflection on the journalist. If you carefully lay out what it is you know, your audience shouldn't be left with misconceptions.

"I think that if you're a good reporter and writer, generally that's done," she says. "If you're good you give the facts as you know them."

Hofstra University journalism professor and longtime Newsday investigative editor and reporter Bob Greene agrees with Petchel, saying journalists shouldn't hint at things that are uncertain. "We should only put out what we know," he says.

Both journalists contend that reporting is a matter of resting on the information that has been gathered and shouldn't rely on highlighting what hasn't been sorted out.

Hargrove says the practice is more valuable in dealing with breaking news stories, when a reporter has to go into print or on the air without having had the luxury of chasing down every lead. In an ongoing investigation that is being revealed piece by piece, stating up front what hasn't yet been determined could avert serious misunderstandings. She cites Watergate as an example of an investigation that unfolded day by day. "You can get away with it [the disclaimer paragraph] when there's something new--when you're putting it together," she says.

Savage concurs. "The most controversy comes when writing on deadline," says the investigative editor, who played a key role in the Herald's coverage of the Gary Hart/Donna Rice saga in 1987. "There's no question that, with the benefit of hindsight, spelling out certain details [about what isn't known] would have been to our advantage."

But Barlett says that even under these circumstances he sees little need for the disclaimer graph. "Investigative reporting, in theory, has no time constraints," he says. "If I don't get something, it's basically my fault."

Stories based heavily on statistics, however, might benefit from further explanations of what's not being said. Nelson points out that statistics often suggest a cause-and-effect relationship when one may not exist, and the risk for misleading readers is high. Saying up front there is not necessarily a correlation could lessen the chance of misinterpretation. Hargrove, who's written several pieces on prominent figures, including evangelist Oral Roberts, says it's important to flag anything missing from such stories, especially when the subject refuses to fill in the blanks.

But could telling readers exactly what your story isn't telling them be seen as an insult to their intelligence, a suggestion that they can't be left alone to read the story without jumping to the wrong conclusion?

Greene says there is a presumption in journalism that the reader is intelligent and that if you write in a clear, straightforward manner, there should be no problem. But, he adds, "if you think the readers are not especially sophisticated, then do it."

Savage says it's not patronizing to readers to state explicitly what you aren't trying to tell them. "Readers won't feel insulted," he says. "They'll appreciate it." He says the reason it's not done more often is that investigative reporters get very excited about what they uncover and have markedly less enthusiasm for what they don't know.

Telling readers what we can't determine, he says, "is hard on our ego."