Is Journalism About Facts?
Published on January 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane has been getting a lot of flack for wondering whether reporters should make an effort to check whether public officials are telling the truth. In his post, titled "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?", Brisbane asks:

"I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about. ... This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true. Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?"

As you can imagine, a lot of people think journalism is about presenting facts, and calling out lies. The prevailing attitude is pretty well summed up by Erik Loomis' response to Brisband's post over on the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money:

"Your modern media, ladies and gentlemen! It’s no wonder that climate change lies can be spread through the media so effectively. The nation’s paper of note wonders whether journalists should challenge what people say? Isn’t that the definition of journalism? Is this a serious conversation? Amazing."

On PressThink, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen attempts to explain how modern journalism got to the point where Brisbane would ask for input on how best to correct the many falsehoods uttered by politicians and other prominent figures. He writes:

"Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as 'maintaining objectivity,' 'not imposing a judgment,' 'refusing to take sides' and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground–more like pros–when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.

But wait a minute: how can telling the truth ever take a back seat in the serious business of reporting the news? That’s like saying medical doctors no longer put “saving lives” or “the health of the patient” ahead of securing payment from insurance companies. It puts the lie to the entire contraption. It devastates journalism as a public service and honorable profession."

Rosen's explanation seems pretty on target to me. I know journalists whose biggest fear is being accused of bias, as if the accusation is so damning in and of itself that it must be avoided at all costs. My feeling is that there are probably more important things to worry about, like getting the story right.

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