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City Hall Reporter: “Keep An Open Mind”

TribCityHallReporter Kristen Mack, interviewed here in March, 2013, offers advice on what to do when a story’s focus changes, how to keep personal biases out of a news report and important traits to have as a journalist.

CLICK ON THE LINK above to play the video.

Mack was the Chicago Tribune’s City Hall reporter until last September, when she took a job as press secretary to the Cook County board president.

Mack was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune since 2009.  Mack’s coverage of the Chicago Teachers Union strike brought her national attention.

According to Chicagoland Radio and Media’s website:  “Prior to coming to Chicago, Kristen Mack was a reporter for the Washington Post for two years and a political columnist/reporter for the Houston Chronicle for six years. Before joining the Houston Chronicle in 2001, Mack was in the Hearst Newspaper Fellowship program, interning with the Seattle Times, Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Miami Herald. She was an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta and received her Masters Degree from the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.”


Use Caution With Hyper-Confident Sources


“The illusion of explanatory depth.” This is the cognitive term for thinking we are smarter than we really are. Turns out we are limited in our understanding of how limited our understanding is.

That tongue twister sums up a useful bit of knowledge for journalists: When interviewing sources who seem supremely confident about what they know, never fear pressing the point. Ask: How do you know what you know?

Researchers Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 wrote about how people are generally overconfident about their abilities and their knowledge. They also have an overinflated view of how well they understand how things work — from a piano key to a flat tax, it turns out.

A New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday referenced this illusion when people are asked to explain political policies. The column, written by two of the four researchers, asked people to explain how political policies work. The result was that not only do people not understand how the policies work, but that in trying to explain them, “they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them.”

The researchers, Steven Sloman and Philip M. Fernbach, noted that politicians should be driven to explain just how their pet policy will function if put into play, not just why voters should back the policy. “We should demand that Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney explain how in addition to why,” they wrote.

It strikes me that this is excellent advice for journalists as well. Demand of our sources and ourselves that we can explain the how behind complex stories and issues.

Rozenblit and Keil also noted that “people grossly overestimate their ability to remember what they have observed in a scene.” Just because a scene is vivid doesn’t mean we remember it vividly.

Again, the science is a useful reminder to careful journalists; this time the point being to be wary about taking eyewitness reports as fact.


Sources: Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002). “The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth.” Cognitive Science, 26, 521-562.

Sloman, S. & Fernbach, P.M. (Oct. 19, 2012). “I’m right! (For some reason).” The New York Times. Sunday Review: The Opinion Pages. p.12.

Video Interview: Award-Winning Reporters on Anecdotes, Accountability and Avoiding Assumptions

Gary Marx is an award-winning reporter at the Chicago Tribune, where he is currently an investigative reporter covering criminal justice issues. David Jackson, also an award-winning reporter at the Chicago Tribune, is a specialist reporter. The two sat down to talk with me in Jackson’s cubicle in the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. In this 4:15-long edited video interview, they discuss anecdotal leads, the importance of journalism to democracy, why accountability matters and how to avoid allowing assumptions to dictate your reporting.

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Welcome to the Overcoming Bias Site

This is the website for Overcoming Bias: A Journalist’s Guide to Culture and Context. The site’s instructional content is divided by chapter, and within each chapter there are exercises, videos, readings and field assignments organized by topics. On this home page, I’ll post blog entries exploring the principles outlined in my book, especially as examples arise in daily news coverage. Please feel free to contact me with ideas or leads anytime via the “Contact Author” link above. Thank you for your interest.

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