Evidence is a funny thing. Sometimes, what you think is evidence, isn’t.
As a jounalist (See SPJ’s Standards), attribution was always part of presenting facts. When you could not attribute information to a reliable source, an authoritative individual, or a direct witness, it became hearsay. When you reference an act and relate it to a possible perpetrator, you always use the word “alleged.”
For example: “Joe allegedly took the candy bar and left the store.” You don’t say he allegedly stole the candy bar, that would define the act. The act of taking the candy bar and leaving the store is an act of theft. However, the journalist is not law enforcement, nor judge and jury. The journalist is the conveyer of information. So, you don’t define the alleged act.
I won’t detail how certain recent New York Times articles completely ignore the SPJ’s standards.
As we move further into the story, we bring up more information.
“A witness said someone who saw Joe take the candy bar told them that Joe did actually take the candy bar.”
The above statement doesn’t name the source other than as a “witness.” Worse, the witness claimed that some other un-named person else actually saw the act. This can only be classified as hearsay and should have little or no place in the story. It encourages pre-judgement without direct evidence.
So, someone called the police, who arrest Joe and gather evidence. After review of the evidence, the police drop charges, and Joe goes home with his candy bar.
Well, evidence. There are rules of evidence and you can find them at these links:
Rules of Evidence
I’m not going to go into great detail here, but the primary measure on evidence is relevance (See Rule 401). Hearsay does not stand up to the relevance standard.
If a journalist references third- and fourth-hand information (hearsay) without direct attribution, he or she did not do their job. So, they missed the part where the cashier told the police that Joe handed her a dollar before he left the store, and the part where the store security camera recorded the event completely (two examples of direct evidence collected by the police). Direct evidence shows “… the existence of a fact in question, without the intervention of the proof of any other fact ….”
In my study and practice of digital forensics, my role involved identifying an actor and placing that person in a seat or in front of a device at a specific time. There is a rougher term for it I won’t use here. This involved gathering direct evidence from the device, from devices and/or services connected to the device, and from devices or equipment in the area (video cameras and recordings).
The important thing in the digital investigation was “chain of custody.” All devices and evidence gathered are carefully recorded, preserved, and the custody tracked. Any gap or mis-step that affected the chain of custody invalidates the evidence, and a judge will throw it out. Not only would a judge dismiss a case over a breach in chain of custody, your professional reputation as a digital forensics investigator could be ruined.
So, what does this have to do with writing?
You must analyze a situation, scene, action in your fiction to make sure it reflects accurately any evidence, hearsay, and forensics practices you might use. Using these elements correctly, even in fiction, helps make the story more real, more believable.
Keep all this in mind, if you watch the television series, Wisdom of the Crowd. Crowdsourcing evidence is a slippery slope and violates so many of the rules of evidence, chain of custody, and promotes hearsay. So, exercise care and caution when exploring these topics.