I remember reading an article once that said a New Yorker or New York Times article of roughly 3,000-6,000 words included an average of 51 sources.
In the beginning stages of journalism, the idea of talking to that many people for one story boggled my mind and almost made me want to quit. But as I continued to learn and write, I found myself never being about to know enough. I now understand why a story needs that many perspectives.
There have been studies done that show that the human mind and memory does not always remember correctly, in fact, rarely does it. We switch allegiances in controversies, we romanticize moments and we even convince ourselves of things that may or may not have happened.
“This is why three sources are never enough,” I tell the beginning reporters at The Appalachian.
David Grann wrote a story called “Trial by fire” in the New Yorker. The story was about Todd Willingham, a man who received the death penalty but was very possibly innocent. While one could say Grann introduced bias with his choice of quotes by Willingham, he did get every single source for the reshaping of the fire incident that killed his children and sent Willingham to jail in the first place.
He first created a story using the quotes from the witnesses before Willingham was convicted and then he talked to the sources after they convicted Willingham. Most of the sources originally seemed truthful and showed compassion on Willingham. But in the second interview, most if not all of the sources created new stories about that day, convinced they were true and that convicted him on the spot.
A renowned fire investigator later basically proved Willingham innocent, saying that the fire was not caused by him. This proved the previous sources incorrect, as if they were not already incorrect as they had changed their witness stories.
Journalists always say, “If you mother says she loves you, check it out.”
We can never have enough information, and we need every side of the story.
Essentially, as journalists, we seek the truth. We are recreating moments from many perspectives to create a well rounded story that is hopefully accurate.
I like to think of it this way: In the bible, there are four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many tell the same stories of baptisms, miracles, journeys and Christmas and Easter. And each tells it in a different way.
Each account is needed in order to fully understand the meaning, the perspective and the weight of those stories.
If anything, this all both serves as a reminder to all journalists, especially myself and other student journalists, to know and research the full story, for you may just uncover diverse perspectives that lead to a larger story.