Editor’s Notebook: Examining the information iceberg

As mentioned in this column space before, in a newspaper newsroom, knowledge is like an iceberg. That is, for all the information that is visible (in our case, in print), there is a higher percentage invisible (in our case, information we know off the record, or is invisible because we can’t risk revealing a source’s identity, it’s part of an ongoing investigation, etc.)

It can be frustrating sometimes. You can’t project something “out there” because you don’t have 100 percent evidence in a situation that calls for it. You want to make sure everything is true, particularly in an era in which “fake news” isn’t a joke and social media makes a mockery of actual news.

Sometimes, a story will come to a news team sequentially in a complex, serious story. Sometimes not. Our newsroom enjoys the latter, I would assert, and it has been an issue on my mind as such an occasion rolled through the Minot Daily’s Editorial wing in the recent… oh days or weeks.

A sequential story is bang-bang spot news. It unfolds in front of you like a car chase.

More complex cases come to us out of order. You know the outcome but not the cause. You have enough information to believe one thing is probably true; then a wave of information is found to conceive of other options. A small part of the puzzle arrives late – or the context does. None of this necessarily impacts what’s in print. In print is just the facts on news pages, informed opinion on the editorial page. It’s the backstory, the context that is the hidden part of the story iceberg. While we are publishing the facts, we also spend a good deal of time discussing with one another what the whole story is, what the narrative is, what actually and entirely happened. In this way, covering a complex or controversial story is more like putting a puzzle together than following a linear sequence to an obvious resolution.

It might surprise readers to know how much time staff writers and editors spend discussing each other’s stories as they develop. Everyone brings perspective, theory, information from decades of reporting that might be related or tangential. We challenge perspectives, offer alternatives, and we keep each other in check – publish what we know, continue seeking that which we don’t. There is conjecture and counter-conjecture and it is all a great deal of fun. I think most of my staff enjoy the debate and discussion. It also improves our reporting and has influence on the editorial positions of the paper.

The back and forth on “the rest of the story” has been on full display around the newsroom as we explored a complex story about which we could acquire only bits and pieces of information and statements – ones that didn’t easily add up to a narrative through which we could try to get a handle on the whole story, in order to be better prepared to report all the facts when they came out. While only a trickle of information came out in print, some of it possibly not intriguing enough to attract much attention, the backstory – the bulk of the unseen part of the iceberg – was fascinating. Various staff members offered various theories to which we then applied the data to test for plausibility. At MDN, this is a particularly interesting process. Our editorial staff isn’t just made up of smart and passionate people, but they also have decades… decades of experience reporting in Minot. The veterans bring invaluable local experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of Minot to the table. Our younger, more recent hires bring a whole generational perspective to the table.

We still haven’t acquired enough information to fully explore the story in question – it’s a work in progress. You might be surprised how many times we are not able to flip that iceberg over because we don’t want to risk any serious mistake, because doing so feels fundamentally unfair, or a handful of other factors. I’m quite proud of my staff for challenging one another – even challenging me – to temper emotion, to demand fact, to offer theories that stand up. The quest for intrinsic big truths has been called a fool’s folly. But when it come to the smaller truths that make up news, it is one of the things that propels us.

If there was one thing I wish every MDN reader – fans and critics – could witness, it is this phenomenon on the newsroom floor. I wish every reader could know how not random and arbitrary the decisions we make are; what debate goes into those decisions; that, depending on the issue, every other department in the building contributes at times; and that while we take this responsibility seriously, it is accompanied by humor and by greater philosophical debates. Most people probably don’t think of newsrooms as debating societies – but, done right, they really should be.

Perhaps one day, we will produce a video or podcast so we can share the experience with you. It would be enlightening, I think at least slightly interesting – and it would demonstrate one of the reasons why career journalists love what they do.

Meanwhile, we continue to try to define that hidden part of that information iceberg, story after story.