I’m not the most famous news anchor in the world, and I’ve never been invited on a talk show, but if I was, and if I had, I might have told that story. It’s pretty dramatic, with powerful imagery. Unfortunately, it might also be a lie.
Twenty-five years after middle school, I mentioned the episode to Kristen. She stared at me, wide-eyed. She could not recall the event, at all. She called her dad, who told her this version: Kristen and I arrived home, found the gate open and the dog missing, and went inside, where Kristen’s stepmother proceeded to go search for the dog. Her stepmother brought the dog’s body home, and Kristen’s dad arrived soon after.
In the few years since this new version was revealed, I have searched my memory, and my version still sticks. I would swear under oath that Kristen and I found that dog. But her dad was an adult, while we were only 12. It’s more logical that his version is the truth.
Memory research has found that when we recall events with high emotional impact, we mess them up in all kinds of ways. According to a Princeton University study, “When it comes to the central details of the event, they are clearer and more accurate. But when it comes to peripheral details, they are worse. And our confidence in them, while almost always strong, is often misplaced.” Read this article for more about that: http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/idea-happened-memory-recollection
NBC news anchor Brian Williams is under tremendous criticism for misrepresenting a series of events from when he was covering the Iraq war in 2003. He said a helicopter he was in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, when the truth is that the grenade hit a helicopter behind his. Williams has been suspended for six months and will probably never regain the trust he has spent his entire professional life building.
While I understand how Williams might have accidentally “conflated” (his word) the events, and while I have tremendous sympathy for the pickle he’s in, I also understand the vitriol aimed at him. Just like teachers are trusted to bond with students, without molesting them, and police are trusted to make arrests, without undue force, journalists are trusted to find the truth, and then tell it to the rest of us, without embellishing.
So what can we do, as journalists, to keep from letting our faulty memories ruin our lives and careers?
First, don’t trust your own memory. Keep a reporter’s notebook, paper or digital, and write down events as soon as possible, in as much detail as possible. Fact check yourself: interview as many people who were present as possible, not just to build your story, but to help yourself find the truth in all the versions you will be told.
Most importantly, don’t trust your ego. My version of the dog story is better. Williams’ version of the helicopter story is also better. Both make us look braver, more heroic, more dramatic. Fight your very human need for praise and acclaim and remind yourself, as often as possible, that honor is ever more important, and once tarnished, almost impossible to regain.