Chelsea Novak: Don’t tell me what everybody knows

One of the questions we’re taught to ask in journalism school is “How do you know that?”

One of the questions we’re taught to ask in journalism school is “How do you know that?” and in the course of community reporting, someone will inevitably reply, “Well, everybody knows that.”

As a journalist, I generally can’t take that for an answer. In the event that someone was to sue me for defamation, it would be incumbent upon me to prove what I’d written was true and “Well, everybody knows” does not constitute legal proof.

As someone who grew up in a small town, I also know that what “everybody knows” is usually pretty questionable to begin with.

At one point, everybody in the town where I grew up knew that I had a kid while I was still in high school. Something I magically accomplished without every being pregnant or taking any time off school. People were so convinced this was true that I was asked about the welfare of my non-existent baby over a year later, by someone who I had never met before and who honestly thought they were being nice by asking about my kid.

The baby I was sitting for when that rumour got started is doing quite well and excelling in gymnastics as it turns out, but as she was only visiting town with her mom for the weekend I never had any occasion to babysit for her again and was never seen with her again.

Oddly no one thought to start a rumour I’d killed my baby, so I guess that’s a plus.

But my point is that the collective mob is capable of taking the scantest information and coming up with the most compelling narrative, which then gets told and retold as fact, so that in the end it’s often hard to trace back what everybody knows to its original source and almost impossible to verify it as fact.

And as a journalist facts are what matter. When I ask someone “How do you know that?” the answer should point me to solid evidence — a transcript, a video, a photo, a document — or the person speaking needs to have first-hand information, and even then it’s important to understand the difference between what someone actually saw or heard and how they rationalized it afterwards. It’s important to understand the difference between fact and conjecture.

Just because someone is holding a baby that doesn’t make it their baby.

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