I have been performing investigations for over 28 years. From my days as a cherry MP to my current gig working for corporate America, there have always been a few maxims concerning investigations that have remained true. When I see the news these days, with their “hard hitting investigative journalism” I have to remember that the amount of fucks that I have to give is limited, and most of the bullshit that we see in print, on TV and on the interwebz is not worth giving a fuck about. However, I would like to share some of the truths that I have learned over almost three decades of professional investigation. Some of this may seem like common sense. But the visceral reaction that the press, and worse, the people who read their stories – leads me to believe that most people rely on initial impressions, personal bias and media presentation to form opinions. This is dangerous.
Three Sides to every story –
One has to remember that there are always at least THREE sides to every story. The point of view of the complainant, the point of view of the defendant, and what really happened. Given a binary dispute, that is to keep this exercise simple, there are by default, two different stories presented – otherwise there would be no conflict. Both parties perceive the event within their own worldview, biases, preconceptions and physical point of view. Both will be different, even if they agree on the basic facts of the case. The investigator’s job is to uncover the whole story, the real story, what really happened. This is and should be the case whether it is a criminal investigation, or covering the story of the United Airlines booting a passenger from his seat.
Unreliability of witnesses –
Witnesses bring a variable into the investigative equation that is not always reliable or consistent. Witnesses are human, and as such have their own biases, points of view and motivations. Because 10 witnesses testify to the veracity of an act – does not make it the truth. We have all seen groupthink take over, just like we have all seen friends and coworkers cover for others. Likewise, even the most honest witness can simply get it wrong. I have worked on many cases where the witness described a suspect as someone that was found to be completely different on surveillance footage. Clothes, physical descriptions and even race have been wrong – and this from victims who had no reason to fabricate the story. They simply did not remember correctly.
Bias confirmation and Cognitive Dissonance –
Witnesses, investigators, reporters, complainants and defendants all have biases. It is imperative that investigators and reporters consciously recognize and offset their personal biases when conducting an investigation. We cannot eliminate bias or preconception. However, we can recognize it as a factor, and perform our duty being cognizant of our own biases and setting them aside for the good of the investigation. Likewise, we must understand that strongly held beliefs may be challenged. If we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Thus, we must be able to work through the events that challenge our beliefs and preconceived notions – especially when the presentation of facts threatens to give our brains the old blue screen of death. That is in fact the discomfort of Cognitive Dissonance. Defaulting to dogmatic or emotional response does not solve the equation. Indeed, one must remember that in the world of journalism, bias, dogmatic response, and shaping the narrative are part of what is presented to you, the public. If it bleeds – it leads.
Totality of the circumstances, motivation and context –
Each investigation is a puzzle that, when first taken on, is missing many pieces. One may not ever discover all of the pieces. However, the available bits can be properly sorted and may provide an overall view of the event. This view is called the Totality of the Circumstances. Taking the evidence of a 20 second video, and extrapolating just that 20 seconds from a single point of view, does not give one even the context for that video clip – much less the totality of the circumstances in which the clip took place. One cannot form a valid and reasonable opinion of an entire football game based on a 20-second clip of a late hit in the last 2 minutes of the game. Likewise, an investigator (or even an impassioned casual observer) should not form the narrative of the case based entirely on the 20 second clip of a doctor (although why it matters that his is a doctor is beyond me) being dragged from his seat on an airliner, a cop shooting a suspect in front of a convenience store, or 20 second snippet of a two hour audio recording in which off color remarks are made. Each event must be taken in its own context, along with the motivation of the players involved – as well as the motivation of the presenter of the evidence. Clever editing, timely presentation and evidence tampering are all tools of motivated people who are less interested in the context and totality of the circumstances than they are clicks, likes, and sold copy.
Evidence vs. hearsay –
“I heard”, “They said”, “It is illegal”, “Violation of rights”, “My dad is a cop”, “I have an AA in Criminal Justice” etc. – This is the common vernacular of the opinionated. These are the catch phrases of hearsay. While witnesses and hearsay may lead to hard evidence, they are not evidence in and of themselves. Uncut, un-tampered video evidence, physical evidence on the scene, verified and sworn statements, scientific analysis, these things are evidence. Opinions are just that. Unless you can cite it properly – it cannot be taken seriously. This is one of the first downfalls of journalism. While they will fact check a politician on what he may have said 20 years ago, they are reticent to actually divulge “sources” or cite the entirety of their own quotes and references.
The loudest voice and the first report –
We have all met that NCO or Officer that shouts everyone down – or just speaks so loudly and confidently that no one questions what they are ranting about, right? This phenomenon is not relegated to the military. The drumbeat and chant go on. “Bush Lied – People Died” – “There were no WMDs” – “I can see Russia from my house” – the list goes on. There have been thousands of instances where the first report, or the loudest, most often-repeated report turns out dead wrong. However, some of them remain truth in the mind of the public and the media. Just because an opinion or fact becomes a viral meme, does not make it true. Likewise, we should all make an effort to critically analyze those truths– especially when there is apparent bias involved, or a lack of source information provided.
The reason that I wrote this is not to discredit or attack anyone or any agency in particular. It is to pass on a little of what I have learned, in hopes that the unthinking visceral reactions that I see every day can perhaps be tempered into something better. None of us as Leaders, as Soldiers (or Marines), as individuals, want to be second-guessed and have someone who wasn’t there (regardless of relevant experience), play Monday morning quarterback based on incomplete evidence. So why be so quick to do the same? So instead of taking initial reports as gospel, letting the media explain to us what we need to know, and letting the narrative define the evidence, let’s all apply a little critical thinking and take a breath before making hasty judgements that we then feel we must defend because we hate to be wrong.
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