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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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

8 thoughts on “Attribution

  1. Jim

    Great story…and we should all have that little voice in the back of our head that asks us that very same question before we write/say anything.

    Covered a sexual assault story once. Victim said six guys blocked her car in, beat her, tried to rape her. Middle of the night, middle of nowhere rural area. I get there, she’s in an ambulance, husband is there. The more I watched him, the more I was convinced that the story I was being told was not true. He just didn’t act right for a guy who’s wife had just been assaulted.

    Of course, we had to go with what we had, which was, “officially” that they were searching for suspects. The victim had said specifically that six Hispanic men had done this, so that’s who they were looking for. Still, that voice kept asking me if something was wrong, and I listened to it. Instead of blowing the story out, it ended up farther down in the newscast, and was covered for a full day while they searched.

    Two days later it was back in the news. She was charged with filing a false report, and the husband was charged with beating the crap out of her the day of the attack.

    Reply
  2. Matt

    Thank you for taking the time to talk with those boys. When I was 7, a reporter took the time to talk with me when she was one-man banding. She even let me look in the viewfinder of her betacam as she reviewed the standup she had just shot. Because of the time she took with me, I decided from that day forward I wanted to be a “cameraman” for news. I accomplished that. You may know her as she ended up working at WAGA as the health reporter for a little while……….Karen Eisele.

    Thanks for not shrugging them off or pompously ignoring them! You may not ever realize the impact you had on them, just as Karen never knew that few moments she spent with would have such an impact.

    Reply
  3. Lucas

    That is a great story! When you work in this business for any length of time, it’s easy to become jaded, and have a very cynical view of humanity. But it’s stories like this that make you realize maybe there is hope for the younger generation!

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Use the children « live apartment fire

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