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Q: Can journalists really trust eyewitnesses? What about the Rashomon effect?

A:

Reporters are intrinsically skeptical of all sources–eyewitnesses included—for good reason. At the same time, they are also hugely dependent on sources for their reporting and, dare I say, their very livelihood. While journalists get around, they are not omnipresent when news breaks. That’s where eyewitnesses come in. They are key sources who can provide direct evidence about an event by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. They can also supply the vivid details needed to craft a compelling narrative that transports a reader to the scene. But like all sources, they must be vetted, and the information they provide verified and corroborated.

That said, the eyewitness source does pose another distinctive challenge. Even if they observed something first-hand, their memory could be faulty thanks to the Rashomon effect. This term refers to the unreliability of eyewitnesses and stems from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. Considered one of the greatest films ever made, it tells the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife from four different eyewitness perspectives. The film highlights the subjective and self-serving frailties of human memory. Eyewitnesses are not human DVRs, and the challenge for journalists is to ask the right questions, especially this key one,  “How do you know what you know?”

The Online News Association (ONA) has guidelines for assessing the reliability of eyewitnesses and other sources. Besides asking how the source knows something, it encourages reporters to consider whether the source has any self-interest or other motivation.

What are the biases of this source? Does he or she have any conflicts of interest? No one is free of a viewpoint, but be aware of the source’s perspective and consider what gaps or blind spots may go with that perspective. (ONA ETHICS Guidebook)

A time gap between when the event occurred and the interview with a reporter can also be problematic. Research has shown that memories fade with time. Harvard psychologist and author of The Seven Sins of Memory Daniel Schacter says the brain does this intentionally to prevent information overload. “The phenomenon of eyewitness testimony being unreliable can at least partially be explained by the fact that, when the event occurred, the witness probably did not know they’d need to remember it. There was no reason, in the moment, for that information to make an imprint,” says Schacter says in a four-part series on memory.

That’s why it’s up to the reporter to check out everything eyewitnesses tell them meticulously. Thanks to smartphones, these sources often have direct evidence in the form of videos, photos or audio recordings. This is known as user-generated content (UGC)  and “an indispensable tool in the modern journalist’s arsenal,” according the ONA Ethics Guidebook.

So until reporters figure out how superhero journalists like Peter Parker and Clark Kent manage to be on the scene as breaking news unfolds, eyewitnesses and journalists will continue their delicate but symbiotic relationship to convey the truth in stories that are compelling, comprehensive and clear.