Sometimes the best advice is the simplest. At a conference of public radio news directors last week, NPR investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling put it simply. “Read the whole report,” he said, quoting the legendary journalist I. F. (Izzy) Stone.
The executive summary doesn’t cut it. Reading just the introduction and conclusion isn’t much better. “Read the whole report,” Zwerdling said. “The best parts are often in the footnotes and appendices.” [Anyone who covered the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s can testify to that. Among other things, the footnotes in the Starr report revealed President Clinton’s hair-splitting on the meaning of the word ‘is.’]
Zwerdling encouraged reporters at all levels to think like investigative journalists. File FOIA requests regularly, he urged, and don’t take anything at face value. And before you quote something, “get the original source,” he counseled.
Consider the widely reported “government statistic” about six or seven years ago that 85% of immigrants picked up for being in the United States illegally abscond before facing a deportation hearing. Where did that number come from? Zwerdling discovered it came from a Justice Department report that actually said something quite different, if you read past the executive summary. Turns out the government was so inept it didn’t actually know what had happened to more than 85% of those immigrants.
Read the whole report. Good advice. You might find a different–and better–story.