President Obama earlier this month refreshed attention to the way that some journalists twist the news by creating false equivalencies in their stories, in an effort to appear “fair” and “objective” as reporters.
“There’s oftentimes the impulse to suggest that, if the two parties are disagreeing, they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” Obama told the Associated Press.
The attack picked up momentum when an AP reporter did just that in his coverage of the speech, falsely accusing the president of moving to the left on health care as Republicans moved to the right. Talking Points Memo and The Atlantic both called the AP on it, though the AP story has now been changed – without acknowledgement – to remove the paragraph in question.
The reticence to take sides in reporting news runs strongly throughout journalism. But when that reticence mutates into a need to change the facts to fit a preferred, nonpartisan, view of the news (called by Jay Rosen “the view from nowhere“), reporters have, in fact, succumbed to bias.
I blame “the view from nowhere” as much as anything else for the collapse of the news business. People who want truth from their news are journalism’s strongest potential customers, but we drive them away when we favor a nonpartisan ideal over the reality of what’s happening in public policy. So let’s set aside this reticence to take sides in favor of some new principles of journalism ethics:
There is no mathematical formula for the truth
I despise the meme that journalists are no good at math. But on the political beat, too many journalists appear too eager to apply a math formula to the news: Take a quote from one party, a quote from the other party, then assign them equal value in the story. Let the reader assume that the truth lies somewhere in between.
For the math geeks among us: A = B, and the Truth = (A + B)/2
That’s not journalism. It’s stenography. And the world doesn’t us to do that anymore.
Journalism doesn’t offer a procedural formula for the truth, either
The journalism convention of reporting of reporting multiple viewpoints can just obscure the truth if you don’t find a way to show your readers which points of view are supported by evidence, and which are not. To find a better method at determining truth, student journalists would do well to get themselves into laboratory science classes, so they can learn what words such as “research” and “objectivity” really mean.
The world’s grown too complex for uninformed, uneducated general assignment reporters to parachute into an issue and be able to distinguish truth from spin, and facts from lies in their reporting. Yet an industry drive for cheap labor has encouraged newsrooms to import entry-level reporters from outside the community, while a misguided view of “objectivity” also has lead editors routinely to assign reporters to beats where they have no professional education, experience, or connections. Both practices are killing newsrooms’ ability to bring needed expertise to their reporting.
We need to find better ways to gather and analyze information.
Journalists’ obligation is to serve our readers, not our employers, our investors or even our profession
So how do we develop a formula for finding and reporting the truth? We’ll have to start by refocusing on whom we should have been serving all along – our readers. We get in trouble as an industry when we stiff our readers in favor of protecting newsroom organizational charts, short-term profit expectations, or even long-standing industry conventions that were created during a different era of communication. Whatever methods we settle on in the future will need to be focused on the readers’ needs for truth information that’s relevant to their lives, instead of the needs of other parties.
Which leads me to my final new standard for journalism ethics:
It’s okay to be partisan
There should be no sin in taking sides in a news story – so long as the facts support that side. The problem with partisanship in news reporting is not the partisanship itself, it’s when newsrooms (such as Fox News) allow partisanship to drive their selection of stories and viewpoints to include in those stories. But there should be no problem with reporting leading a journalist (or her or his readers) to a partisan conclusion.
If the facts point to a definitive, partisan conclusion, we actually cheat our readers when we stop short of taking them there. We should value our readers’ time and attention. Let’s not waste their time with half a story when we have the full thing.
No, the facts don’t always lead to a partisan conclusion in news stories. And even if they might, we don’t always have the all those facts nailed down when it’s time to report on a speech, a bill, or even an election.
But when we do have the facts, and they point a specific way, we shouldn’t be afraid to go there. When journalists twist their reporting to avoid the appearance of partisanship, as the AP did initially on the Obama speech, we’re as guilty of twisting the news as the hacks at Fox News are.
Our readers deserve better.