Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eyewitnesses: The courts, and journalists

The courts are turning a skeptical eye toward the "troubling lack of reliability" in eyewitness testimony.  Should journalists do the same?

The New Jersey Supreme Court, for example, is making it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness accounts.  Here's a telling quote from a judge:
"From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real. Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country."
The U.S. Supreme Court has its own doubts.  "Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify suspects in criminal investigations," according to this NYTimes lede. "Those identifications are wrong about a third of the time, a pile of studies suggest."

If you're a reporter, your first response should be:  "Oh, crap."

Journalists rush to crime scenes, to tragedies, to bars at happy hour.  Eyewitnesses are sought out, quotes dutifully recorded, stories carefully crafted.  Nothing beats being there, I always tell my journalism students, but if you can't be there nothing beats talking to someone who actually was there when an event occurred.

If the courts have some doubts about the quality of eyewitness accounts, shouldn't journalists share these doubts?  Absolutely.

The easy solution is for a reporter to judge whether a description sounds right, smells right, and is corroborated by others on the scene.  Even then, groupthink can kick in.

Cop reporters know this one.  Rush to a crime scene in a less-than-savory neighborhood where maybe a cop shot someone, say a kid.  All the witnesses share a similar story, and sometimes they're right, but sometimes they tell the story they want to believe or the story they think they saw -- versus what their eyes actually soaked up.

We're all flawed cognitive processors.  We often see what we want to see in a situation, a finding confirmed by hundreds, if not thousands, of published psychology studies.  Not only do we see what we want to see, we remember it in ways that fits our predispositions (racial, ethnic, religious, partisan, and all the rest).

If roughly a third of eyewitness accounts in court cases are wrong, is it possible roughly a third of our reported eyewitness accounts in news stories are also wrong?  Perhaps.  And that's enough to give most journalists pause.  Take the extra time to make sure other eyewitnesses share the same story.  Even then you may be wrong.  But at least you made a good-faith effort to provide the best obtainable version of the truth.

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