Knowing what you know (and what you don’t)

As we talked Tuesday about covering breaking news, I was reminded of the mad logic of that thing Donald Rumsfeld said years ago about the state of government intelligence about terrorist activities. He said:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a pretty good description of what must happen in our brains when we are in the process of covering a breaking news story. We must constantly acknowledge to ourselves and to our readers what is known to us (verified) and what is not to do the best job we can of reporting a fast-moving story accurately.

Some people fudge on this by reporting on what others are saying, whether those reports are verified or not. I suspect that what these news outlets and individual journalists want more than anything is to hold their readers’ attention even when there is no new, verified information to report.

Resist that temptation. And have a look at this page from The Verification Handbook (which I sent out to all of you Tuesday via email). It is the best, most up-to-date list of verification tools I have seen designed for use in emergencies (and these would be useful in any breaking news situation).

Bookmark it. We’ll talk tomorrow with an L.A. Times reporter, Matt Pearce, who covers a lot of big breaking news stories. (He’s also a former student of mine.) He’s good at this stuff, so get ready with your questions.

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