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Credibility is Critical Issue in News Reporting

by on February 09, 2015 6:15 AM

This week, the journalist in question is NBC news anchor Brian Williams.

Mr. Williams is in serious back-pedaling mode as it was revealed that his 2003 story of being shot down from a helicopter as he was reporting on the war in Iraq has some pretty big holes in it.

We are hearing from soldiers and others accompanying that flight that Mr. Williams either embellished the incident or out and out lied about what actually happened.

After hearing Mr. Williams again refer to the incident during a broadcast last weekend, soldiers who were actually on the scene of the helicopter incident have stepped forward to say that it didn't happen in the way that Mr. Williams has been describing it for the past 11 years. Mr. Williams has since recanted the story – a story that has been repeated numerous times on air in the past 11 years – and said he apologizes for misremembering the events of the day. Williams has temporarily stepped away from the anchor desk and NBC news is now promising a full investigation.

Misremembering. I'll have to remember that one.

Credibility as an element of communication is something that we evaluate and react to in our daily interactions at work, in our families and at play.

It's called source credibility. How and what we hear, and from whom we hear it determines if we believe it, are persuaded by it or if it influences our personal knowledge and information.

Let's say I'm standing on the street corner and a person I've never met approaches me. "Hey" he says. "I heard they are giving away free money at the bank just around the corner."

In the communication process, we all immediately start to determine credibility. We look at the person. We observe his or her non-verbal communication and body language. We assess things like facial expressions, gestures, the pitch and volume of his or her words. The person's age, gender, and other factors can come into play. We take in the information based on our past experiences with both the information and with the person (if we have any shared history). Last, we listen to the words that the individual is saying. In a matter of seconds, we make an assessment about the individual's credibility.

If the person telling me about the free money give-away happens to be a middle school aged pre-teen who is giggling in between each sentence, I would probably question the credibility of the statement and start looking around for the group of friends who put him up to the prank of "messing with the old lady."

If the person sharing the news about free money is the banker with whom I've had a long time friendship and who processed the mortgage on my house, I might see the information with a bit more credibility and start looking for an empty bag to take with me on the sprint up to the bank.

Source credibility involves a variety of processes and decisions that lead us to the point of whether or not we believe the information that the person is providing us is true.

I attended a conference this week and noted how professionals lay the groundwork for source credibility. Before the conference even started, we were given bios of the presenters. Each were dressed very professionally and shared with us their personal experiences in the topic at hand. They demonstrated confidence in both language and posture and made eye contact with the participants. I found myself listening and taking notes from these "experts" in the field.

Conversely, how many times have we been in a meeting or at a party and we think "this person has no idea what he or she is talking about?"

From management to marketing. Supervision to public relations. In friendship and in parenting. Credibility in our interactions – both on the side of the message sender and the message receiver - involves a complex set of factors

Once someone loses credibility with us, we often read the information they present to us in subsequent interactions as being "untruthful" or at least with questionable credibility.

That little boy who cried "wolf" tested the limits of source credibility to the point where he was no longer believable. Chomp chomp.

In the news industry, credibility is crucial, especially for a high profile position as that of Brian Williams. Knowing that he has "stretched the truth" at least one time makes most of us wonder if he has taken liberties in other prior reporting and if what he is telling us now or what he tells us in the future is actually the truth. Other reporters who have used poetic license in their coverage of the news have seen their careers come to a screeching halt.

In this instance, the version of the story as told by the soldiers on scene was viewed as more credible.

We've all been in situations where tweaking a few details or adding a bit of drama to a story makes it more exciting or our part in the situation more important. There is, however, a line between embellishment for effect and lying.

Brian Williams knew the difference. He must have misremembered.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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