How to avoid letting a source’s memory lapses or outright lies destroy your stories

I’ve made a point of telling anyone who will listen that if they need ANYTHING from me in terms of content to help their students or their student newsrooms, all they have to do is ask. Thus, the following request came from a fellow journalism teacher:

Do you have any great lessons or content on how to analyze if a source, esp a source for a profile, is lying or misrepresenting information (either purposefully or due to memory erosion)?

It’s difficult to know for sure when someone is lying or if there are memory gaps that make for some problematic moments within the story you want to tell. As I’ve often told folks in my classes, it’s not always about being perfectly successful in your efforts when it comes to something like this, but rather avoiding the things that can really screw you over that matters most.

With that said, here are a few things beginning reporters can do to mitigate disaster when dealing with a source that might not have the facts 100% perfect:

GET A SENSE OF THE SOURCE: One of the primary reasons I tell students they need to conduct interviews in person is so they can capture more observational elements to add color and feel to their pieces. A good side benefit of being in person is you can get the vibe of the source and decide how much you really want to trust them.

Some sources are great at hyping themselves up like they’re trying to sell you the Bass-O-Matic ’76. Others do some great “humblebrag” stuff that really can sound like they’re important and vaguely decent people. In spending time with these people, you can find out who is likely worth trusting and who you can’t trust any further than you’d trust a pyromaniac at a gas station.

The one thing to understand is that there is a crucial difference between people who are full of crap and people who literally have lost track of things over time. Honestly, I have told a number of stories over and over again to the point that I’m not sure if they’re perfectly accurate, slightly altered or complete BS. (I am grateful, however, that I found support for the famous “Olde Un Theatre” robbery and the “Mraz, where’s Mrefund?” headline.)

I had one student who SWORE she wrote an obituary that had a particularly awkward headline on it. I found the piece, with the headline she described, and it wasn’t her byline. Maybe she wrote the headline, or edited the piece or something else, but it wasn’t her byline. This is why it’s important to fact check basically everything when it comes to people telling you stuff that you plan to use in your work.

Once you get that vibe, you can do more work with the questions you have and the level of insistence you enact when dealing with your questions.

IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL OTHERS MUST PAY CASH: Even in profiles, there is a benefit to becoming what I call a “non-denominational skeptic” about the information you received. Whether you like the source or you wouldn’t believe them if they came into your house, soaking wet, and told you, “It’s raining out there,” apply a similar level of rigor to your questioning. This is particularly important when it comes to things you really plan to focus on as part of your story.

Let’s say you’re doing a profile on a business person who turned his life around after a rather rough patch in his 20s and now helps ex-convicts find work. You likely are going to ask what was the turning point that got this guy on the right path, and here’s the answer you get:

“I wasn’t a good person back then. I was arrested for a series of burglaries back in ’85 around the Cleveland area. I was supposed to get 6 years, but the judge gave me 12 and shipped me off to Folsom prison, way across the country. Being that far from home, in a prison like that, well, it changes a man. About 50 prisoners were killed while I was there for those 12 years and I always thought I’d be one. I told God, ‘If I ever get out of here alive, I’ll make my life right for whoever else gets out of here.'”

Sounds compelling and amazing. Now, how much of that is stuff you NEED to check? A goodly amount:

  • Check arrest records from “the Cleveland area” in 1985 and find out if this guy was ever arrested.
  • Check court records to find out if he did get sentenced to 12 years.
  • Check prison records to find out if he went to prison, let alone Folsom
  • Check prison records (and others) to find out if 50 people REALLY got killed out there from about 1985 to 1997.

This is just smart reporting and it will help you fill in some of the key details about the source’s live. Also, the more of this you can verify, the better off you are. The less you can verify, the less you should trust this source.

Clearly, you can’t verify if he “wasn’t a good person” or if he had a conversation with God. (“Hello, St. Peter? Yes, this is Vince Filak with the Dynamics of Writing blog. Is God there? I need to confirm a conversation He had back in 1985 or so…”) But you can check out enough stuff to feel like you’re not getting fed a line.

TRUST, BUT VERIFY: Another key way to poke back at people is to show interest and engagement with their stories while offering them ways to help verify this information for you.

If you’re interviewing someone and they say, “I was amazed when I received my Silver Star for my tour in Vietnam, but I really was just doing the same job as everybody else…” you could check a database when you get done with the interview. However, you could also try this approach during the interview:

“That is truly incredible! Could you show me the medal? I’d love to see it!”


“Do you have any pictures of the ceremony? My editor would love to put something visual with the story!”

If the answer is yes, you’re in decent shape. If the answer is a dodge or something like, “Nah, I threw it away.” then you are probably going to want to push back a bit more with stuff like, “So where was the incident that took place that got you considered for the honor?” or “I would love to talk to anyone who was in your platoon at the time for more on this…”

In other words, you’re giving the person an opportunity to verify this stuff for you. If they can’t or won’t, tread cautiously.

WEIGH COST VERSUS VALUE: Journalism in a lot of ways is like catching sand in a sieve. You’re never going to catch everything, but you want to make sure you don’t lose too much of the small stuff or any of the big stuff. To that end, you want to weigh the cost versus value of the amount of work you’re doing on any particular fact-finding dig.

Let’s say you’ve got a source that was paralyzed from the waist down during a car accident in high school. After that, he went into a deep depression, but found God and now goes on speaking tours throughout the country to explain how to overcome obstacles in life. The source tells you this:

“I was driving a 1979 Ford Thunderbird with this great V-8 351 Cleveland in it when I had the accident. The truck that hit me mangled that car like you wouldn’t believe. I honestly feel that if I had been driving something smaller, I’d be dead.”

The guy shows you a picture of the wreck, so you can see what happened to the car. He’s clearly paralyzed or has been faking it well for decades. The opinion is his that he might have died in a Toyota Camry. is it really important to fact check whether that car had the 351 Cleveland engine in it or if it might have had a 302 or a 351 Windsor? Probably not.

Look at what matters most and make sure those things are solid. The random fringe stuff can be checked if you have time and if it’s easy. However, it’s not going to behoove you to go plowing through thousands of DOT and Ford Factory Sheets to figure out what engine landed in what car in a case like this.

RESEARCH BEFORE, FACT CHECK AFTER: The goal of quality research in advance of talking to a source is to make sure you ask good questions and that you don’t get turned around if the source tries to BS you. The goal of a quality fact check is to make sure what the source told you makes sense before you publish the piece.

You then can decide to what degree you want to keep certain bits of information and what degree you feel the need to actively fact check with in a story. Ted Bridis, a fellow journalism prof, shared this example with a bunch of us to outline the ways in which a “personal tale” can have enough bullcrap in it to fertilize the back 40 acres. The writer of the piece literally takes each element that this source outlines as “fact” and checks it out with people after the fact to show what is clearly not true and why it matters.

If you ask the right questions, you’ll find that many sources will try to snow you less, as it’s clear you aren’t coming to them fresh off a turnip truck. However, there are still people out there who will try to convince you that they were the one who convinced Lin-Manuel Miranda to go with Hamilton instead of “Aaron Burr: The Death Metal Musical!”

That’s where the fact check really comes in.

FIND OTHER PEOPLE TO HELP: I remember certain things about my childhood that might or might not be true. Some of them, Mom or Dad might have an angle on (and judging by how we kept pretty much everything I ever did in the file cabinet in my folks’ back room at the house, we might actually have physical proof of that thing).

REPORTER: “Hey, I was talking to your mom and she said you never scored a basket in your fifth-grade season. She still has all the box scores. You did almost foul out of nine games, thought.”
ME: “I’ll be darned. I swear I hit a basket at least once. Anyway, I’m sure that foul out thing is right, as I played basketball like Danny from ‘Grease’ that year…”

If you can get verification from people who would likely know, it’s probably a safe bet you can go with that information. If you can’t or the information seems to contradict, go back to the original source for verification:

REPORTER: “Hey, I was talking to your mom and she said she thinks that story about Mrs. Schutten screaming at your class was from fifth grade, not third grade. She said the woman taught you in both grades. I just wanted to know if you’re sure on what you told me.”
ME: “Oh, yeah… I forgot that she got us twice… After I had Sr. Kenneth in fourth grade, the beatings we all took from that nun basically scrambled my memory for some things…  Mom’s probably right, then.”

The goal of asking other people for things is to help solidify things that are important to telling your story. In some cases, you’ll have conflicting reports from key sources and it’s up to you to determine who you believe and how important those conflicting elements are.

A great example of this is in the book “Loose Balls” by Terry Pluto, where he outlines the wild life of the old American Basketball Association. He tells this one story about Marvin “Bad News” Barnes and how he missed a team flight to Norfolk, where Barnes and the Spirits of St. Louis were supposed to play the Virginia Squires.

Barnes blows off the flight and figures he’ll catch a later one, but it turns out he missed the last commercial flight to Norfolk. So he chartered a plane (something unheard of at the time) and got down there at the last minute. He shows up to the locker room with like 10 minutes to go before game time wearing a full-length fur coat, carrying a couple bags of McDonald’s burgers and a big smile. He opens his coat to reveal his uniform like he was changing from Clark Kent to Superman and declares, “Have no fear, BB (his nickname) is here.”

The story was verified by a number of people who all told essentially the same story. However, people deviated on one detail. During the game, the pilot supposedly showed up in the team huddle and demanded to be paid for the flight, so someone had to run back to the locker room and get Marvin’s checkbook so he could write the guy a check. The amount of the check varied widely from about $700 to more than $1,500, depending on who told it.

Pluto recognizes that the story perfectly captures the insanity that was Marvin Barnes and this team of weirdos. He knows that it is mostly true and pretty solid in its confirmation. He also knows people want to know what it cost to do this little stunt and that he doesn’t have the goods. He acknowledges that by including that information and the variations in his chapter. Something like that is easy enough to do if you have a few inconsistencies that don’t undermine the larger truth you’re trying to convey.

THE DUTY TO REPORT VERSUS THE DUTY TO PUBLISH: No matter how much effort a reporter puts into a story, there is never a guarantee that the story is absolutely right. Mistakes happen, memories fade, BS intrudes and more. The goal is to try to put forth the best version of reality, regardless of how difficult that is.

This is where we separate the duty to report and the duty to publish. As journalists, we need to ask questions and poke at facts to figure out what happened and why our readers should care. Not every effort we make in that realm will give us the results we feel comfortable with. To that end, we have to be OK with the decision not to publish something if we’re not 100% certain on the issue.

It’s better to have something missing or come up a little thin in a story than it is to publish something that is flat-out wrong.

A great example of this is an article Bethany McLean, a financial journalist, wrote in 2001 about Enron. The company basically had stock that just kept going up and up and up for no real reason and the company big wigs couldn’t explain to her in any meaningful way how money moved through the company. She knew something wasn’t right, but she wasn’t 100% sure of what it was.

In several interviews, she noted that there were several partnerships that were doing deals with Enron that appeared to be owned or operated by Enron executive Andy Fastow. She saw them disclosed, but she never mentioned them in her article. In the documentary, “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” she explained:

“There were these partnerships that were run by Andy Fastow that were doing business with Enron and they were disclosed in the company’s financial statements, but I didn’t mention them in the story because I thought, ‘Well, the accountants and the board of directors have said this is OK so I must be crazy to think there’s anything wrong with this.’ The story I ran was actually pretty meek. The title was “Is Enron Overpriced?” (because) in the end, I couldn’t prove that it was anything more than an overvalued stock and I was probably too naive to suspect there was anything more than that.”

She realized she had the duty to dig in hard on this. When she couldn’t make it work perfectly on the first pass, she understood that she didn’t want to screw this up, so she went with what she could prove.

As it turned out, the partnerships were a large component of a major financial fraud and the company was a house of cards, things McLean and others found out after she put out that first article. However, at the time, she couldn’t go beyond what she had, so she stuck to what she could prove and lived to fight another day.

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