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Anatomy of a Fact: When Is the 'Bismarck Tribune' a Better Source Than the 'New York Times'?

Anatomy of a Fact is a recurring series exposing how the Pacific Standard research and fact-checking process works.

The central question when fact-checking the reporting of a sequence of events is, in absence of primary evidence like video and audio recordings, what secondary sources one should trust. In any situation where primary evidence does not exist, a contemporaneous written account is best, but determining whose contemporaneous written account is best necessarily imposes a values judgment. Because different sources report things differently, difference in first principles on what constitutes a good source can ultimately shape the narrative that arises concerning an event.

One natural first inclination in determining what is a good source for a claim is to find the biggest source standing behind that claim—the New York Times, the Washington Post, or equivalent. Implicit in our thinking about factuality is the assumption that the wider the audience a claim reaches, the more true it is. Another implicit assumption is that a proven, reputable source on a wide-range of topics is always also the best source on a specific topic.

In regards to the first assumption, however, it should be clear that a claim's truth stands independent of the number of people who hear that claim. Factuality is not a popularity contest. In regards to the second assumption, width of coverage is not a suitable trade-off for expertise. Relevant to both concerns, the fact-checker's search is for the closest source, not the biggest.

For the reasons spelled out above, our March/April feature by Kelly Hayes, "Standing Rock and the Power and Determination of Indigenous America," about the Standing Rock movement, is heavily cited to the reporting of the Bismarck Tribune. Information reported on the ground by the Tribune—that police used water cannons to repel protesters on Backwater Bridge in late November of 2016, for example—often flowed up to the reporting of national news organizations, but to verify what happened, our buck stopped with the reporting of people on the ground as events unfolded. In this case, that meant going with the smaller paper, not the one of record.

As has been widely reported, the current media environment is one characterized by major declines, office shutterings, and layoffs in local journalism. In addition to the imminent danger of stories being lost and going uncovered, the decline of local news also poses a threat to the pursuit of truth: As reporting becomes more and more distant, mediated by more and more people, we run the risk of losing the type of access that can guarantee reporting is firsthand and accurate.

Anatomy of a Fact is a recurring series exposing how the Pacific Standard research and fact-checking process works.