Should journalists be truth vigilantes? Hell, yeah!

Charles Bronson stars in…

Charles Bronson
Photo by Fish Cop at en.wikipedia

Truth Vigilante

From IMDB*: “A New York Times reporter becomes a one-man vigilante squad after his story is murdered by copy editors, in which he randomly goes out and kills would-be journalists in the mean streets after dark.”

(*Not really)

C’mon. If we’re going to be truth vigilantes now, let’s take a lesson from the star of “Death Wish” and do it right, okay? Maybe more people would buy newspapers if we juiced ’em up with some staff-on-source (or even staff-on-staff!) violence. Why should rap stars get all the good beefs?

Reporter is such a passive term. Weak. Wimpy.

Vigilante? Now, that’s a word that’ll sell papers!

And on the website? Well, now when we say we a piece had a thousand hits, we’re gonna mean that literally. Find those lyin’ PR guys and punch ’em out. We wanna see black eyes. Maybe some blood. And don’t forget the video, either. Have you seen the CPMs we’re getting for pre-roll these days?

For years, “reporters” have been trying to serve truth to their readers, only to learn that the only way to get their words into the paper is to ensure that every fact comes paired with a challenge, every data point with contradiction and every sharp conclusion with someone else’s dizzying spin. No longer.

Now, reporters truth vigilantes are going to fight for the truth. It’s not enough to have the truth buried in there somewhere in a news story. Like a team of well-trained social scientists, our truth vigilantes are going to find, isolate and test for the truth. And when they find it, they’ll be out there – on the mean streets of the city and the blogosphere – defending the truth against all those who would spin it away.

For years, people in the journalism industry have been trying to pretend that “real” journalists don’t have a point of view. Screw that. We’re admitting now that we do – and we always have. Our mission is to find the truth, report it and defend it. If we can’t pack heat, our weapons will be research, empiricism and logic instead. Don’t like the results? Challenge us with your own data. We’ll shoot it out and see who’s left standing.

This ain’t no Washington inside-the-beltway dinner party anymore. We’re not here to make nice with our sources. We’re here to defend our people – the readers who are counting on us to make sense of this flood of information that’s drowning them every day.

One way we protect those readers is by not reporting every last damned thing some spin doctor says on behalf of a political candidate. We set the agenda for our story-telling – not the campaigns. Sure, if a campaign launches a new TV commercial or print ad in our market, we’ll send the truth vigilantes to take it on. But we initiate our own stories – in-depth descriptions of what candidates propose to do, and solid reporting on how that’s worked out for people in the past. No more he-said, she-said from people in the game. We’re looking at real data on how policy proposals will affect people’s lives. That’s it. Want a horse race? Drive to Santa Anita.

Should journalists be truth vigilantes? Hell, yeah!

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. It’s interesting to see this issue break out into the open like this. In retrospect, the only thing that’s surprising is that it’s taken this long. Consider: internet sites like Snopes & PolitiFact owe their very existence to the breakdown of trust in our existing news institutions on the part of the audience. We read stuff (often sent via e-mail from the semi-mythical disgruntled conspiracy theorist uncle). Checking our newspaper/TV/radio/whatever, there’s a he-said/she-said story. So we go elsewhere to figure out if what we were originally sent is true or not.

    Steve Yelvington long ago identified this as the most crucial (but neglected) part of the media in a societal ecosystem: being the “Town Expert.” (The other two roles are of “Town Crier” and “Town Square” – which media orgs more or less have a handle on.)

    Can’t tell you the number of proposed startups that came through the Knight News Challenge in the last two years aimed at resolving this basic issue – how can we trust what we read? Many of them are seeking to assign some kind of a numeric “reliability score” to the source of the information. Which is interesting in theory – a published climate scientist getting a 99 score, for example, while a Big Oil-funded hack gets a 12.

    But in practice, systems like this would probably fall prey to the same phenomenon that plagues Digg or other sites that rely on crowdsourcing to determine importance/credibility — the efforts of a committed radical few to rig the results in their favor. Still, it would be interesting to see a major media outlet start to offer little links in superscript next to attribution, that lead back to a page describing where that quote came from, who the person is, and what their history/agenda is.