Passing the smell test: How journalists grow a third nostril

April 12, 2019

The disappearance of a pregnant woman out West became national news. What possibly could have happened to her? Her husband expressed his grief and anxiety in front of a national TV audience. I turned to my wife next to me on the couch. “He did it,” I said. And so he did.

Between cop shows and real-life crime stories, we all recognize the trope: The first suspect is the partner or spouse, often the one who reports the crime.

Detectives are trained to sniff out the truth. That’s why the slang for them is bloodhounds — because they “track down” the killer. The metaphor is apt.

Science writer Marc McCutcheon notes that “The bloodhound’s epithelial membrane, or ‘sniffing organism’ is 50 times larger and thousands of times more sensitive than a human’s. The trace of sweat that seeps through your shoes and is left in your footprints … is a million times more powerful than the bloodhound needs to track you down.”

Let’s hear it for the nose. Journalists have all kinds of noses, or maybe just one nose, but a nose with a third nostril.

Among professionals, journalists are the dogs. They are guide dogs and watchdogs, trackers and pointers, but never lap dogs. They stand guard in the public’s yard. When danger, or even uncertainty, approaches, they bark. It’s a form of news telling. Hey, pay attention! Look at this! This guy doesn’t smell right!

Reporters as dogs.

My wife and I are again on the couch. A story out of Chicago of a young celebrity, Jussie Smollett, black, gay, the victim of a hate crime. At 2 a.m. on a frigid Chicago street, he is assaulted by two vicious thugs who claim allegiance to President Donald Trump, pour some liquid over him, and place a noose over his neck.

“This doesn’t smell right,” I said. She gave me a disgusted “you doubt everything” look.

I have spent 40 years listening to journalists and learning their lingo, their slogans, their metaphors. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s an old one. But at one time it may have been even more cynical. Melvin Mencher, an influential and curmudgeonly teacher at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, offered this version: “If your mother calls you Sonny, check it out.”

In other words, not only may your dear mother not love you, but how can you be sure that she is your real mother at all?

The distinction that most matters is the one between skepticism and cynicism. The practical skeptic doubts what he knows. His concern is about knowledge. The skeptical editor asks: “How do we know that?” Or “How can we know that?” The cynical editor has doubts about the ability of humans to act with good will. Her concern is about morality. That editor assumes the worst about people in general, especially those being covered.

“I better check that out,” comes from the skeptic. “They all lie, all the time,” comes from the cynic, a word, by the way, that comes from the Greek meaning “dog.”

I polled my Facebook friends — mostly the journalists among them — to get their sense of what it means when “something doesn’t pass the smell test.” How did journalists come to grow a third nostril?

Here are some of their ideas:

  • Veteran editor Walker Lundy wrote, “I always used the Two-Minute Mile Rule. It’s impossible for a human to run a two-minute mile. If you come across a story that sounds impossible, it probably is.”
  • Adam Hardy wrote: “If something doesn’t pass the smell test for a journalist, I think that’s shorthand for ‘More reporting is needed.’”
  • Dean Miller riffed on that strategy: “If too good to be true, too starkly good guy/bad guy, more reporting is needed.”
  • Tamara Lush wrote, “If you’ve covered crime long enough, you come to notice patterns. In motives, how events unfold, even how perpetrators/witnesses/victims tell stories. When things don’t fit those patterns, the intuition kicks in. That’s not to say a reporter shouldn’t pursue the story, but it’s one of the caution lights.”

Every veteran journalist I have ever met could tell me a story about being fooled or misled by sources. As a result of those experiences, reporters learn to be cautious with the statements of public figures, but sometimes the source seems so reliable that fabrications, falsehoods and distortions sneak through.

When editors intervene, they are looking for holes in stories, gaps of important information. At times, an editor will smell something in the text that is a little off and requires verification. In a collaborative spirit, the editor prosecutes the story, a kind of journalistic devil’s advocate. We love this story and want it to be true, and because we want it so much, we owe it to everyone to check it out, down to the last factoid.

Andrew Meacham, an expert practitioner of feature obituaries, shared this classic case on Facebook:

As an obit writer on a daily deadline, I was delighted to learn of a recently deceased physician who only did house calls. How quaint! Usually I checked backgrounds on potential subjects before investing a lot of time. But because he was a doctor, somehow that didn’t strike me as something to do immediately.

For me the “something isn’t right” element was physical but not olfactory. More like a nausea you try to deny or ignore until it’s just about time. In this story it was the too-pat responses from the widow about why he gave up his clinic to treat elderly shut-ins. He just enjoyed it more! He found it fulfilling. No anecdotes about that decision, maybe something he said about why he liked house calls better. It felt like a false bottom.

Four hours into my reporting I started searching his name, and quickly learned that four female patients had accused him of improver behavior. It was the state’s Board of Medicine that said he could no longer work out of an office, not some nostalgic desire to return to small-town America of the 1950s. We killed the story.

In summary, here are things I have learned about the smell test:

  1. Think of your nose as an early-warning detector. If you smelled something unusual in your house, you would get up off the couch and check it out.
  2. In the process of getting a story, more reporting is the antidote to many poisons.
  3. Both writers and editors must be willing to “prosecute” stories, especially the ones we most want to believe.
  4. A good question reporters can ask themselves: “How do I know this?” A good question for editors to ask reporters: “How do we know this?”
  5. If “everyone” believes something, it is still worth checking out. If that thing turns out to be wrong, that will make its own important story.
  6. You will not become a better reporter by assuming that everyone is lying to you. That makes you a cynic. Double-checking the assertions even of trusted sources makes you a dutiful, practical skeptic.
  7. The best way for an inexperienced reporter to develop a third nostril is to hang around with reporters who have one. Follow the work of such reporters and ask them how they sniffed out the evidence.
  8. All of these are versions of the same sensibility: “This doesn’t smell right.” “This doesn’t feel right.” “Why does my gut hurt?” “Where’s my B.S. detector?” “My spidey-sense is tingling.”
  9. You are not born with a third nostril; you grow one. In other words, this alert response is not based on instinct, which, technically, you are born with. These responses are learned, which is why more experienced journalists recognize and trust them.
  10. Your nose is more powerful than you think.

This last point is confirmed by science writer Marc McCutcheon in the book “The Compass in Your Nose”:

All humans have a trace amount of iron in their noses, a rudimentary compass found in the ethmoid bone (between the eyes) to help in directional finding relative to the earth’s magnetic field.

Studies show that many people have the ability to use these magnetic deposits to orient themselves — even when blindfolded and removed from such external clues as sunlight — to within a few degrees of the North Pole, exactly as a compass does.

And, for the record, if your mother says she loves you, you should probably say “I love you too, Mom,” but don’t be surprised or offended if she checks it out.

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