Healthy skepticism and a shout-out from Slate

A couple of years ago, I had this fireball of a student named Morgan Cook. She was smart but sometimes a little hard to control. For example, in reporting on the troubles some people were having at a local mobile home park, she ended up having to hide in the bathroom of a source’s trailer. Long story.

Yep, she scared us sometimes. But she did good journalism because she didn’t give up easily.

This week, Morgan got a shout-out from Slate for “terrific journalism” she did, digging into the data and debunking assertions about oxycontin abuse in the county where she is a reporter. The piece is as good as Jack Shafer says it is. He’s a media critic who pays very close attention to the general sloppiness of the mainstream media. (Maybe you want to follow him on Twitter.)

Why am I talking about this? Beause I haven’t said enough yet this semester about healthy skepticism — the art of shutting off the uptake valve and giving outselves enough time to discover for ourselves whether something is true, or not. Government officials don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes, what we’re given is PR, or an unverified assertion.

In journalism, the most important question might just be: How do you know that?

And then there’s data — beautiful data — to help us find our way to the truth.

Raise one eyebrow. Keep it raised.

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9 Responses to Healthy skepticism and a shout-out from Slate

  1. asgrund says:

    This is a good point. I think we often forget that press releases are not verified facts. However, I also wonder, who do we believe? How do we know when we’ve found the truth? Can even data be misleading?

    On a side note, I loved the use of subtitles in Ms. Cook’s article. It broke it up nicely and made it much easier for me to read through the entire thing.

  2. sakitu says:

    This post makes me wonder about how much skepticism we need. In my opinion, journalists are already a pretty skeptical bunch. But how much skepticism is “healthy skepticism?” How do we know when to keep digging and when to accept the information we’ve been given? Is it just a gut feeling, or are there obvious signs/rules to guide us?

    Also, why was Cook hiding in a source’s bathroom? I would love to hear this story in class.

  3. rosiedowney says:

    I like Morgan Cook’s article because instead of just reporting what the official sources were saying, she actually looked into statistical data herself and found a completely different story. Reading into these numbers allowed her take this piece to the next level and helped her receive some much deserved accolades as well.

  4. Dustin says:

    great article – she could certainly follow up in a few years to see how the numbers have changed

  5. That was great….it was interesting to see how NYT didn’t get it right, but NCT did.

    I never realized there are simple ways to spot that a source came from a PR release, like the one about the boy Tim Strain. It makes it sound like an aspect of investigative journalism, where we have to learn to sniff out details from releases and then find real sources.

    The line about Morgan is a terrific lede, now we simply have to know the bathroom story!

  6. I too think this is a great piece of investigatory journalism. OxyCotin abuse is a big problem where I’m from and I would have believed the press release without hesitation. It’s easy to take the information from authorities and just go with it.

    How cool to be able to change probably a whole nation’s misconceptions about this particular abuse? Well done.

  7. Sean Leahy says:

    I think a great example of keeping an eyebrow raised was the Missourian’s reporting on the Derrick Washington suspension.

    All MU officials would say on that day back in August was Washington was suspended indefinitely. No reason was given for the suspension.

    In cases like that it is imperative to dig deeper than what a source is giving you and in this instance the Missourian broke a significant story.

  8. I think that this is a great piece of journalism and would be lucky if I ever got the opportunity to uncover anything as substantial as this. However, with quick turnover timing constraints paired with layoffs/fewer journalists in the newsroom, how do you decide whether a hunch is worth going after? Does an investigative journalist always live in fear not of corruption but that his or her story actually isn’t one?

  9. I loved reading this article because while it is skeptical, it doesn’t deny that there is no problem at all. I think a lot of times while trying to be skeptical, journalists can become one-sided in a story; Cook could have easily left out the second section on the actual dangers of the drug, and just focused on the exaggerated numbers. This piece does such a great job of remaining skeptical, and same time reminding us that journalism isn’t just about shoving facts in people’s faces. It gives the community a better idea of the overall story behind the alleged problem, and most importantly how and why the facts got misconstrued.

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