The great war reporter Ernie Pyle supposedly rarely took notes. Truman Capote professed to have a memory so flawless he could recall entire conversations whole. (Sorry, TC, not buying it, and neither does Joshua Foer.) Even in intense, fast-moving situations some journalists take zero notes because they believe they can remember everything: the precise sequence of actions, who said what, what people looked like or were wearing. (Again, not buying it.)
Cops can tell you about the fallibility of human memory. Ask 10 witnesses to describe the same event, or even the same person, and most of the time those witnesses will say 10 different things. Even those of us trained in observation and detail get it wrong, especially under pressure. I recently ran a surprise observation/scene exercise in a class full of world-class journalists and not a single person remembered everything correctly. Nor did I. In this exercise some students have been known to get even a participant’s race wrong.
"… More than half of what we experience is inaccessible to memory within a single hour,” Ed Cooke writes in a recent edition of The Guardian. (Thanks for the link, @AlisonLoat.) Which is scary/instructive.
I use this checklist with students but it’s solid for all of us who are in the business of telling true stories. We’re all students of the craft, no matter how long we’ve been in the game.
>Don’t assume your memory is perfect, even if you’re highly decorated and have been in the field a bajillion years (and maybe especially if you’ve been in the field a bajillion years).
>Cross-check sources’ recollections, if possible—via other sources, video/audio footage, personal observation. (Remember the scene in Shattered Glass where Chuck Lane makes Stephen Glass take him to the site of the alleged hacker convention and learns first hand that the space was closed on the day the convention supposedly happened. You can thank @penenberg for that one; he’s the one who busted Glass.)
>Document: Write it down, film it, record it—whatever you have to do to freeze it accurately in time.
>Look for paper trails—and be skeptical of them. Witnesses to the same event may recall the details differently but consensus leads—if nine of 10 witnesses said the suspect was 5-8 and one said 6-3, you’re going with the 5-8. And if you have the pleasure of a solid paper trail, read everything. What if you stopped w/the witness who reported 6-3?
>Practice better observation/focus/recall techniques. There’s books about this stuff.
>Review the facts as soon as you’ve experienced them. The 19th century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found what “has become one of the few certainties of neuroscience: namely, that all memories grow continuously weaker, but that the rate of ‘decay’ lessens each time you review the information,” according to the above-linked Guardian piece.
>Make no excuses. “Oh but that’s more or less what happened”—not good enough. “Fact checking will fix it”—a dangerous and sloppy journalistic work ethic.
You, as the reporter, are the first line of defense. Your goal should be for fact checkers—should you be lucky enough to work with them—to find little to nothing to correct. (Never happens but still, a worthy ideal.) If you’re doing your job you won’t be missing the larger substance of the story by paying attention to the details.
Here’s a whole candy store of recent stuff about memory.
Have memory/reporting tips/checklists of your own? Ping me @williams_paige and I’ll add ‘em.