Good investigators are not necessarily smarter than the people they help. What often makes a good investigation is one in which “known” facts are independently evaluated once again.


Just as we sometimes want a second opinion on a complex medical or legal matter, gathering and weighing the credibility of facts can also benefit from a fresh pair of eyes.

The recent article by Jack Hitt in The New Yorker called “Words on Trial” explores the field of forensic linguistics. Famous for figuring out the identity of anonymous authors (as in the case of “Primary Colors”), or threatening notes based on word patterns and other signs, this field also looks at the apparently plain meaning of a transcribed phrase and whether or not the phrase could mean the very opposite of what’s printed on the page.

In one case described in the article, “I would take a bribe, wouldn’t you?” on the transcript could also have plausibly been “I wouldn’t take a bribe, would you?” and resulted in a hung jury. Another controversy was whether a transcribed “No, she didn’t” may have been “Sure, no, she did.”

All the more reason to interview people if you can, rather than rely on the reporting of others. We’ve repeatedly stressed the value of doing your own interviews in other entries, including “The Key to a Good Interview is Silence” and “Talk Isn’t Cheap, Even When Offline.”

Beyond the ability to listen and to tease out meaning, a second look at information can help because people are sometimes irrationally disposed to put too much or too little weight on one source or another. We’ve written in our “Fact Finding Test for Lawyers” about the inordinately heavy amount of trust people put into a Google Search.

Now comes a study from Penn State Professor Mike Schmierbach and Ph.D. candidate Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch that claims “a New York Times story posted on the newspaper’s website was seen by respondents as more credible than when the same story was posted on the newspaper’s Twitter feed.” This makes no sense because the Twitter feed links to the supposedly more trustworthy website.

But it does beg the question: how many times a day do we put the wrong amount of trust in a quotation, a statistic, an asserted fact or other piece of information?