Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL155.PRB - Don't Ask Me 'How Are You?'«MDNM»
My column normally focuses on providing an historical perspective of Missouri's state government.
But this week I write about the saga of NBC's Brian Williams because it's such a contrast to the behavior of my colleagues who cover our state government for you.
Among my fellow reporters in the statehouse I find a deep discipline to honesty in both professional and personal lives.
We simply don't exaggerate!
Don't ask me "how are you." If you do, you may get a long explanation that goes beyond just a simple and inaccurate "just great."
Even in social conversations we demand precise attribution of facts.
I fear that constantly asking "how do you know that" or "from whom did you hear that" can make us unpleasant company at dinner.
We don't assume we know something when we encounter an unexpected situation.
Instead, when confronted with the unexpected, we ask for confirmation of what we thought had happened and ask for context.
That's what I've found missing in the various accounts from Brian Williams. There's no indication he asked the follow-up questions of sources -- including the obvious of "did I really see what I think I saw?"
It's an aspect of an old adage for editors that I was taught early in my career, "if it's too good to be true, it probably isn't -- true, that is."
If you think you've seen or heard something that seems unusual, you go after sources to make sure that what you think you saw really is true -- like an RPG trying to shoot down your helicopter.
A prosecutor once told me he never would want a journalist on a jury for a case because we are so demanding of proof that we never would convict.
Williams' helicopter story reminded me of the two times I thought my own life was endanger as a reporter.
The first time, I discovered the threat was in my own mind. But the other time, it may have been real.
The first involved a college student riot for which Missouri's National Guard had been called out. I dove to the ground that night as I heard bullets being fired over my head while I was covering the story by moving between the rioters and the troops.
The other instance arose in Uzbekistan when an apparent terrorist tried to force off the road a car in which I was riding.
Journalists don't assume. So, in both cases, I pursued more information.
A subsequent investigation of that college riot found no evidence that the protesters had discharged any type of weapon. So, I may have overreacted to what very well could have been just firecrackers.
That night, it was journalistic discipline that stopped me from reporting anything about gun fire. I did not know for sure.
In the second instance, from my driver and subsequent interviews, I was told that the Uzbekistan threat likely was real, although it also could have been an isolated hothead youngster playing games. I'll never know for sure.
Those are the kind of journalistic disciplines, like follow up questions, I find missing in the accounts from Brian Williams. Whom did he question? From whom did he seek assurance that what he thought had happened actually was the case?
Were there after-action military reports he could have examined to verify what happened with his helicopter?
Asking questions, I've learned, is the most powerful tool journalists have -- no matter how certain we are.
Having to confirm what may seem obvious makes one a better reporter. Maybe it's a lesson for Brian Willliams -- unless his misstatements were deliberate.
As an aside, there's another claim from Williams for which I can recount a related personal experience -- dysentery.
It happened when I was helping a journalism training program in India.
Unlike Williams, however, I never claimed I had dysentery because no doctor had confirmed it. And it was no big deal. A dose of antibiotics I always pack began fixing the problem within a day or two.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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