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Handling The Avalanche Of Information

In comments, conn1e wonders:
…does CBS or other large news outlets use Google, Lexis-Nexis etc. to their full potential? Is there a separate staff of "fact-checkers" available to reporters that use these and other Web resources? Are they skilled researchers or interns doing the job because nobody else will do it?

Maybe you have covered this in a previous post, but I've often wondered how reporters handle the avalanche of available information these days and hope they have skilled outside help available.

We thought that was a great question, so we turned to Toby Wertheim, a producer whose responsibilities include research for the Evening News, for some answers.

Wertheim came to CBS as a researcher for the Evening News in 1979. She now heads a staff of three people, one of whom is part time. "Some people describe us as reporters who don't get on the air," she says. "We do research and background work for the most part." That means using Nexis and the Internet, as well as the CBS News reference library, which offers access to databases like Factiva and ChoicePoint, as well as a 30,000 volume book collection made up largely of reference materials.

On Friday morning, Wertheim, who works solely with the Evening News, got a call from a Washington D.C. based producer, Carter Yang, who was looking for background information concerning radio host and former Education Secretary William Bennett's comment that "… if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." The quote has led many to criticize Bennett, including President Bush, who believes "the comments were not appropriate," according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan. Yang was looking for statistics he could use in a story about the dustup on the crime rate and population of Americans in jail, broken down by race.

Wertheim says she's learned there are "lots of ways to play with numbers," which has made her wary of using many of the statistics that come across her desk. On this story, she says, she found on Nexis a press release, complete with statistics, which backed up Bennett's claim. But when she looked into the organization behind it, The New Century Foundation, she concluded the numbers could be problematic. So she looked instead to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, which over the years has proven reliable and accurate, and which was available in the reference library. She also contacted Northeastern professor James Fox, who has helped her authenticate statistics over the years, and who pointed her to additional statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

While not all Evening News stories go through Wertheim and her team, they do read over the programs scripts before they go on the air to double check the facts, and check the graphics to make sure they are accurate. "A producer here used to call me the minister of truth," says Wertheim, laughing.