Daily Archives: May 19, 2010

Attribution

I was in an apartment complex, talking in my outdoor voice in the direction of a TV camera.  I’d somewhat memorized the remarks, which would be placed within the body of a TV story in a format known as a “standup.”

As I finished, I heard a voice:  “How do you know what you said is really true?”

Riley Freeman

It was not the typical question posed by stray bystanders watching men talking out loud, committing acts of television.

I was reporting on an incident where police applied repeated Taser bursts to a carjacking suspect.  According to the police report, the suspect followed the second burst by exclaiming “fuck y’all motherfuckers,” then lost consciousness.  She died a short time later.  I sidestepped the “final words” part of the story.

The voice belonged to a boy, about age 11.  He was standing with a friend who was holding a young box turtle he’d  found.  They’d just exited a school bus.  They were wearing khaki pants and blue polo shirts, the uniforms of their public school.  The 11 year old kinda looked like Riley from the Boondocks.

Hoping this young man had asked the question I thought I’d heard, I walked toward them, introduced myself and asked them to repeat the question.

“How do you know what you just said is really true?”

This kid was casually questioning the very essence of journalism.  I was impressed.  He deserved a complete answer.

“I can only interpret what I’ve seen with my own eyes, or what I’ve been told, or what I’ve seen in records.  Since I wasn’t here when this happened, I have to rely on what I’ve read in a police report.  I’ve also spoken with people who were here when it happened.  Based on all that information, I have to come up with a narrative that’s as truthful as I can make it.  Are you familiar with the word ‘attribution?'”  He shook his head.

“Attribution’ is when you tell people the source of your information.  Honestly, I can’t say with 100% certainty that I’m giving a truthful account of what happened.  But I’m giving the best information I’ve got, based on what I’ve learned.  It’s why attribution is so important when you’re covering news.”  I was starting to lose him.  “Why do you ask?”

“Because that’s not what happened,'” he said politely.

Well, what happened?

“I saw it.  The police were all around her.   They were putting her in an ambulance, pushing on her chest and stuff.”

Did you see what happened before that?  “No,” he said.

He was a resident of a ghastly, sprawling multi-family complex that almost defies description.  Many units were boarded up, apparently uninhabitable.  We stood near an entire eight-unit building that had been gutted by fire weeks or months earlier.  Yet the complex teemed with life.

I explained that there was more to the story, which is why it was newsworthy and why I was there.

I urged the boy holding the turtle to wash his hands thoroughly.  “You guys are going to college, right?”

“Oh yes,” they answered in unison.  “What’s that college called where I’m going?” said the 11 year old, smiling at his friend with the turtle.  “Oh yeah.  Harvard.”

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