Should Journalists Be Objective or Tell the Truth?

'Truth Vigilante' Remark by New York Times Public Editor Sparks Debate

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Is it a reporter's job to be objective or to tell the truth, even if it means contradicting statements by public officials in news stories?

That's the debate New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane stumbled into recently when he raised that question in his column. In a piece headlined "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?", Brisbane noted that Times columnist Paul Krugman "clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie." Then he asked, "should news reporters do the same?"

Brisbane didn't seem to realize this question has been chewed over in newsrooms for awhile now, and is one that vexes readers who say they are tired of traditional "he-said she-said" reporting that gives both sides of the story but never reveals the truth.

As one Times reader commented:

"The fact that you would ask something so dumb simply reveals how far you've sunk. Of course you should be REPORTING THE TRUTH!"

Added another:

"If the Times is not going to be a truth vigilante then I certainly do not need to be a Times subscriber."

It wasn't just readers who were irate. Plenty of news business insiders and talking heads were aghast as well. As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote:

"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."

Pontificating aside, let's get back to Brisbane's original question: Should reporters call out officials in news stories when they make false statements?

The answer is yes. A reporter's primary mission is always to find the truth, whether that means questioning and challenging statements by the mayor, the governor or the president.

The problem is, it's not always that easy. Unlike op-ed writers like Krugman, hard-news reporters working on tight deadlines don't always have enough time to check every statement an official makes, especially if it involves a question that's not easily resolved through a quick Google search.

For instance, let's say Joe Politician gives a speech claiming that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent against murder. While it's true that homicide rates have fallen in recent years, does that necessarily prove Joe's point? The evidence on the subject is complex and often inconclusive.

There's another issue: Some statements involve broader philosophical questions that are difficult if not impossible to resolve one way or the other. Let's say Joe Politician, after praising the death penalty as a deterrent to crime, goes on to claim that it is a just and even moral form of punishment.

Now, many people would undoubtedly agree with Joe, and just as many would disagree. But who's right? It's a question philosophers have wrestled with for decades if not centuries, one that isn't likely to be resolved by a reporter banging out a 700-word news story on a 30-minute deadline.

So yes, reporters should make every effort to verify statements made by politicians or public officials.

And in fact there's recently been an increased emphasis on this kind of verification, in the form of websites like Politifact. Indeed, New York Times editor Jill Abramson, in her response to Brisbane's column, outlined a number of ways the paper checks such assertions.

But Abramson also noted the difficulty in truth-seeking when she wrote:

"Of course, some facts are legitimately in dispute, and many assertions, especially in the political arena, are open to debate. We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn't veer into tendentiousness. Some voices crying out for 'facts' really only want to hear their own version of the facts."

In other words, some readers will see only the truth they want to see, no matter how much fact-checking a reporter does. But that's not something journalists can do much about.

Also read:

FOX News, MSNBC and Journalistic Objectivity

Why the 'Objectivity is Outdated' Argument Falls Flat

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