I learned how important fact-checking really is

By Sheena Samu

During the spring 2015 semester, I interned with CBS News, at “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.” I spent two days a week at the research desk, working on that night’s broadcast.

My job included checking scripts to make sure all the facts were correct and communicating with producers and reporters if anything needed to be changed. I was also responsible for helping producers with early reporting for future stories, finding the found information and sources that a reporter would need.

What I learned from this internship is how important fact checking really is. Every number, name and detail had to be true and updated, because it was our job to provide our 8 million viewers with the truth. If what we shared with our viewers wasn’t accurate, we would no longer have any credibility.

It was a more vivid experience of what I learned in the classroom. This is especially true considering everything JRN 350, Journalistic Ethics, taught me. I had to be extremely factual, which reminded me of the JRN 350 “accuracy F.”  Many times, our classroom talks about language and ethics came into play. Some writers would word lines that seemed one-sided or insensitive, and I could flag that. It might seem okay to the reporter, but whether they want to admit it or not, there are generational gaps between a lot of viewers and the reporters and producers, so something that might seem okay to them actually wouldn’t be considered politically correct any more.

I really got to know the other interns, who came from many different schools. That was an eye-opening experience because I could see the difference in what we were learning in our journalism programs, and it made me very appreciative of the classes and professors I had. Another thing I noticed, though, was that those students seemed to have an easier time getting internships, which made me realize that location matters. Sometimes, being in the city is a major advantage.

One of the best parts of my job was that I worked under reporters whom I’ve looked up to as I grew up, including Clarissa Ward and Holly Williams, both of whom I’ve met as a student as well.

They work as foreign correspondents and are telling the stories that I want to cover one day. It’s great seeing their scripts and developing an understanding of their writing styles. It’s also great finding new facts for them and helping them develop their stories. It’s a different perspective, doing that from the research desk and communicating with producers who work with them, too.

Another interesting thing that I did was shadow Dr. Jonathan LaPook, the chief medical correspondent for the network.

I told him about my 490 project, which is on the LGBT community, and he let me follow him on a day he was doing a story on transgendered people. I saw the way he wrote, how he tracked and what he was learning as we were building the story. He even let me help him write his live tag, and I was there on set while he filmed it. It was great to see a different side of the newsroom.

What I had to learn quickly, though, was that I have to be assertive. Every day is a deadline. I have to make sure that the scripts I check are completely accurate before our 6:30 broadcast. I can’t do that if I’m too shy to pick up a phone and hound a primary source. That was an original fear of mine, but I got over it quickly because the job was too important.

At CBS, I realized how much of the news media is changing and how much actually is staying the same.  What I learned that the news is necessary, and although some people will tell you that journalism is, even dying out, that’s just not true. Yes, the distribution is changing and online news is becoming more prevalent, but broadcast news is not changing. Every night, the “CBS Evening News” has 8 million viewers. But for something to go viral on the Internet, it needs just thousands of views over the course of a few weeks. Broadcast news isn’t dying, and a great thing about this internship is that I learned that from Scott Pelley himself. Witnessing what he does has been a great learning experience. He reports, anchors and manages a whole world of reporters and writers, and all the while, he makes sure that the news is accurate and that it’s done right.

I’ve realized that it can be easy to give up and tell producers their work is right, but the hard part—the right thing to do—is to fight them for what is true and to make sure that you go that extra step to so what the audience hears is what’s right. One example of this situation was the Chapel Hill shooting case. The writers and producers were questioning whether the story should be written as a hate crime or even be given much attention. What they didn’t know was how much mass social media attention the story was getting, especially among college students. So another researcher and I explained the real impact the shooting had on people, and we urged the producers not to downplay a major situation. After considering and doing their own research on social media, the producers decided to make the story not just a voice over but an actual package. They reported the story fully and gave it proper time and attention. They appreciated our input, and because of it, they produced a great package full of facts and interviews for the night’s broadcast.

Overall, this internship taught me a lot. I’ve grown so much as a journalist and as a person. I’ve become more confident in my work and in myself, and I’ve developed social skills that I never had before, even through my college classes.

If I could advise other interns or journalism students, I would tell them to give whatever job they’re doing the best they can. Always take the extra step, and be confident in everything you work on. You’re in charge of how your experiences go, so make the most of it. I hope I’ve done my best with this experience. It was definitely life changing.