In an age of disappearing information, how can journalists continue to gauge credibility? This question has been sticking in my mind ever since a brief discussion I had last month with a top-notch, old-school reporter…
(NOTE: Don’t miss the followup to this article.)
Last month at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I attended a breakfast workshop on the Freedom of Information Act. FOIA (US Code sec. 552) is a crucial tool that allows US journalists and citizens to gain access to any government document that does not fall under certain narrowly defined secrecy exemptions. In other words, it empowers Americans to keep government’s inevitable tendency toward secrecy in check.
However, what I recall most from that session is a brief exchange involving a colleague of mine who covers the environment for a major news service. He’s a very open-minded guy but when it comes to the craft of journalism, his standards are uncompromising. He approaches virtually every type of information with a critical eye, which serves his readers well.
I was sitting next to this reporter as the workshop discussion ranged to nontraditional sources of government information available online. Of course, TheMemoryHole.org was mentioned. This excellent site is a project by Russ Kick, an author and freelance journalist. Here’s how Kick describes his site:
“The Memory Hole exists to preserve and spread material that is in danger of being lost, is hard to find, or is not widely known. This includes:
- Government files
- Corporate memos
- Court documents (incl. lawsuits and transcripts)
- Police reports and eyewitness statements
- Congressional testimony
- Reports (governmental and non-governmental)
- Maps, patents, Web pages
- Photographs, video, and sound recordings
- News articles
- Books (and portions of books)
The emphasis is on material that exposes things that we’re not supposed to know (or that we’re supposed to forget).”
I frequently read Memory Hole and consult it for research, so I was not surprised when it was recommended in this session as a useful resource for journalists. However, I realize that Memory Hole is also a favorite haunt of conspiracy theorists. It contains information that can be wildly reinterpreted or misinterpreted, either directly or in context. Let’s face it any site that bills itself as exposing “things that we’re not supposed to know” invites skepticism. In particular, journalists are trained to view such quasi-paranoid overtones as red flags.
Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when my colleague immediately inquired about Memory Hole’s credibility. In a nutshell, he wanted to know how trustworthy or credible that site could be, especially since it appears to be more of a personal project than an “official” one.
In a brief aside conversation with my colleague, I told him that in my opinion the value of this site is that it archives complete original documents, not just descriptions, summaries, or edited highlights. He then asked how could we trust whether those documents are in fact genuine or complete? Good question.
I told him that, as a journalist, I consider Memory Hole’s content to be more like leads than news. That is, I think this site provides a good launching point for further investigation. It is not a primary source. Fortunately, Kick offers ample reference information for every document, making it possible in most cases to track down a firsthand (primary) source.
My colleague then asked about Russ Kick’s “agenda” does Memory Hole’s editor have a particular axe to grind in terms of politics or issues which might skew which documents he chooses to archive, and which context he chooses to provide? The general consensus among workshop participants familiar with Memory Hole was “I don’t think so, he just seems opposed to secrecy…”
Understandably, my colleague didn’t seem very satisfied with this vague answer and I can’t blame him.
WELCOME TO THE EXPANDING GRAY ZONE
Let’s back up and look at the big picture here: The reason for that workshop and indeed the raison d’être for SEJ’s First Amendment Task Force is that right now Americans are facing a rapid expansion of official secrecy. This secrecy affects everyone, but it especially hinders journalists’ ability to do their job effectively.
If a reporter is covering a difficult issue and can’t get an official source to discuss it (at least not on the record), AND cannot obtain credible primary-source douments, she’s stuck. She’ll have to resort to running a story based on information from anonymous or secondhand sources, which could easily tarnish the appearance of credibility for herself and her employer. Or she might not get to run the story at all.
Some news organizations (such as the Washington Post) have stringent rules for sourcing that is, which kinds of sources they require to be quoted or cited in order to support the basis of a news story. Such requirements breed more reliable news at least in terms of certainty about who said what, with disclosure of relevant motives or associations. However, in a time when official firsthand information is harder and harder to come by, stringent sourcing requirements (not to mention fear of lawsuits or reprisals) might prevent important and valid stories from making headlines.
IT’S A TRADEOFF
Honestly, I would prefer that news organizations maintain tough standards for sourcing and corroboration. We need skilled, critical journalists to track things down and clarify what happened and what is known. Speculation is an inevitable aspect of human nature, but it’s better to speculate based on facts rather than rumors.
However, the reason why human beings tend to speculate is that often we don’t have access to all the information we need to form opinions, make decisions, and act. We have a fundamental need to understand our environment in order to conduct our lives. Where information is unobtainable or unreliable, we make judgement calls about where to look and what to trust. We rely on intuition more than most of us would care to admit. And we each have unique preferences and standards for what we choose to believe, and why.
Today, journalists in the US and elsewhere face an expanding gray zone where access to information becomes murky and uncertain. Many sources and documents we once felt a sense of entitlement toward now elude us. We have to work harder to obtain the same or comparable information while newsroom budgets continue to shrink, deadlines continue to tighten, and workloads continue to grow.
I admire reporters like my colleague who maintain classical journalistic standards in the face of such obstacles. I also realize that a full-time journalist of his status and recognition enjoys considerably more access to official sources than a freelancer like me. On difficult or controversial stories, his calls will probably get returned before mine. His FOIA request is more likely to be expedited. That’s just how it works, and I accept it.
Consequently, I find leads where I can and track them down however I can, to the best of my ability and utilizing very limited resources. For me, unofficial resources like Memory Hole often are a good starting point although they’re rarely what I end up quoting or citing. Still, I feel I should give these resources credit. They help.
LOOKING AHEAD AT INFORMATION ACCESS
I would like to believe that FOIA is invincible, and that the rights of the press are invulnerable. I would also like to believe that someday Michael Hedges will return from the dead to give me guitar lessons. But I have to operate in the real world, so I keep my eyes open. I see that in the US, information access is under siege and losing ground fast, both at the federal and state level.
Individual journalists and researchers, as well as groups such as SEJ, FAS, RCFP, SPJ, EPIC and many others are fighting hard to maintain our access to official information. I won’t say these groups are fighting a losing battle, because they’ve enjoyed many successes. Nevertheless, I’m glad that unofficial repositories like Memory Hole have been springing up on the internet, where they become globally accessible and beyond the secrecy powers of any particular nation. Even though such efforts may be spotty or skewed, they’re a starting point.
Who knows someday such odd-lot unofficial collections of official documents may be the only available records of certain unfortunate occurrences. If that day comes, even old-school journalists will be glad these independent libraries exist.
CONTEXT: ORIGIN OF THE TERM “MEMORY HOLE”
Where did the term memory hole come from? It’s an important concept in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, which concerns an extremely totalitarian society:
“With the deep, unconscious sigh which not even the nearness of the telescreen could prevent him from uttering when his day’s work started, Winston pulled the speakwrite towards him, blew the dust from its mouthpiece, and put on his spectacles. Then he unrolled and clipped together four small cylinders of paper which had already flopped out of the pneumatic tube on the right-hand side of his desk.
“In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”