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!

Why we need advocacy journalism

When “objective” journalism decays into a cowardly neutrality between truth and lies, we need advocacy journalism to lift our profession – and the community leaders we cover – back to credibility.

That’s my response to a source quoted in an item posted by Jim Romenesko yesterday. The post linked a survey that listed Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications as the nation’s top journalism school. (USC Annenberg was listed fifth, FWIW.) What caught me eye was one of the quotes Romenesko selected from the original story to include in his post:

“One reply stated schools should teach ‘objectivity. Too many schools are teaching advocacy journalism.'”

Let’s dive in: Advocacy is not the antonym of objectivity. Objectivity is the goal of accounting for your own biases when observing of an external reality, so that your report accurately reflects that reality. By reporting objectively, the goal is that you be able to produce an observation that others, observing the same reality, can reproduce.

There’s nothing about objectivity that prohibits you from advocating on behalf of your results. In fact, putting your work up for peer review, and being able to defend it, is part of the scientific method that influenced the journalistic concept of objectivity.

Every journalist advocates for their stories – anyone who thinks otherwise has never hung around an editor’s desk or been to a front-page budget meeting. So advocacy’s part of the job. And as journalism schools are supposed to be teaching their students how to advance their careers, they need to be teaching their students how to advocate for their work – whether that’s getting an assignment approved, a freelance gig okay’ed, or a story onto P1 or into the first slot on the website’s homepage.

When I’ve asked journalism students why they decided to get into the field, I’ve yet to hear anyone respond that they were looking for a big payday. Idealism motivates almost every journalism student – and journalist – I’ve met. We want our reporting to help make our communities better places and help our readers live better lives.

So we get into this field looking to advocate for worthy causes, and we use internal advocacy to get our stories heard. Allow me to suggest, therefore, that the problem some journalists have with “advocacy” is not the concept itself, but those who put advocacy ahead of the truth, instead of behind it, where it belongs.

Objectivity is a means to an end – that end being truthful reporting. And if truthful reporting leads to an obvious conclusion, a reporter and publication cheat their readers if they pull back and don’t follow their reporting to that conclusion, and fail to advocate for their community reading it – and acting on it.

We cheat our communities – and our profession – when we decide first what we’re going to advocate for, then cherry-pick reporting to make a case for it. And, yes, Fox News, I am writing about you. (Isn’t it time yet that Fox News becomes a resume stain that disqualifies its employees from future work in J-schools and reputable news organizations?) Our disdain for propagandists shouldn’t turn us against advocacy – it should embolden us to become even more aggressive advocates for the truth that propagandists (such as Fox News’ shills) attempt to deny.

Of course, that cause isn’t helped when self-proclaimed fact-checkers in our profession decide to rubber-stamp Fox News talking points. This week, PolitiFact selected as the “lie of the year” the Democratic claim that votes for a Republican plan to replace fee-for-service Medicare for everyone under age 55 with a completely different voucher system were votes to “kill Medicare.” (See the link above for why PolitiFact’s conclusion is pure B.S.)

My favorite response to PolitiFact’s selection? This tweet: “If I kill a man and take over his identity, I actually did not commit a crime. Thanks PolitiFact!”

Journalism deserves better than this. Our communities deserve better than this. But they won’t get better than this if journalists decide that our primary professional goal is to always remain neutral in everything – to never take a stand. That just leaves us as ineffective bystanders while propagandists set the public agenda.

The only way that we will better serve our profession, and our communities, to become advocates for the truth. And that means calling out those voices in our community – including PolitiFact – when they get things wrong.

I’m glad that some professors are teaching advocacy journalism. We get into this field to raise some hell and make things right. Let’s never forget that – let’s embrace it.

Should a news publisher be a cheerleader for the local community?

Should a news publisher be a cheerleader for the local community?

This month, San Diego businessman Doug Manchester bought the Union-Tribune newspaper from a Beverly Hills-based private equity firm.

“We’d like to be a cheerleader for all that’s good about San Diego,” incoming Union-Tribune president and CEO John Lynch told “Our motivation, both of us, was to do something good for San Diego.”

Lynch’s boss, Manchester, is politically active – he’s a Mitt Romney donor and gave more than $100,000 to support Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative in California that’s now being reviewed by the courts. So when the new management crew says it wants to be “pro-business,” as Lynch told VoiceofSanDiego, I don’t think it unreasonable to read that phrase – “pro-business” – as conservative “code” for advocating against government regulation and against anything, including unfavorable news stories, that could impede deals from getting done. Even if those deals hurt others in the community.

I’m not afraid to say that I’m “pro-business,” too. But I’m an entrepreneur, not a conservative ideologue. I want my business, and other businesses in my community, to succeed – not just in the short term, but long into the future, as well. When I say I’m “pro-business,” I suspect that I mean something very different from what Manchester and Lynch imply.

As any experienced manager ought to know, securing the long-term success of a business requires navigating some unpleasant moments along the way. Ignoring those challenges rarely helps the business. Typically, failing to address problems only makes their impact more damaging in the long term.

How pro-business did it turn out to be, really, for so many newspapers to run “cheerleading” stories about home sales and new financing deals during the real estate bubble of the 2000s? Don’t feed me a line about how nobody knew what was going on. Some analysts and commentators knew the nation’s financial system was inflating a bubble years before things started to pop in 2007. Perhaps the economy wouldn’t be wallowing in the mess we’re in today if more reporters had chosen instead to listen to those voices and do the extra work to report what turned out to be the truth about proliferate, no-standards lending pumping housing prices far beyond what a real market could sustain. Perhaps the real “pro-business” approach would have been for journalists to report the skepticism that the public needed to avoid making what turned out to be catastrophic decisions for the nation’s economy.

It’s not anti-business to expose con artists or to tell the public the truth about bad deals. It’s far more anti-business to stand back and allow the public to be swindled, making it more likely that people keep their money to themselves in the future, rather than taking the risk of being conned again.

But before I fire you up to go report another round of muckracking stories, let’s listen a little more closely to what Lynch and Manchester had to say. Because I do think that they have a point we need to consider.

A successful news publication in the 21st century must serve as a strong advocate for the community it covers. How would you like to work for a boss who only talked with you when he or she was calling you into for a reprimand? How would you like if you never heard a word from superiors when you did well, but only when someone upstairs thought that they could nail you for an error? How demoralizing would your professional life be then?

No one would want to work that environment. So let’s not be ignorant of the environment that we’re creating in our communities with our news coverage.

The irony here is that I truly believe most journalists are optimists, at heart. We wouldn’t have chosen this field, with its traditionally lousy pay and long work hours, if we didn’t think that our work could help make our communities better. But our optimism too often leads us to present overly negative coverage.

We think that the good in a community isn’t newsworthy because we think that good things happening in a community is the ordinary – the way things are supposed to be. And we think that a journalist’s job is to report that which is out of the ordinary. But when all we report is the bad, never taking note of the good, we paint an inaccurate portrait of our communities – one that’s hard to look at and makes our readers feel the way that picked-upon employee must feel.

So advocating for our communities requires not just exposing the dangers that confront us, but inspiring our readers with stories and notes about successes, as well. And not just the big ones. Show some love to the careful front-yard gardeners, the essay contest winners, the after-school volunteers. Credit the government employee who fined a dirty restaurant, as well as the entrepreneur who created a new job in a depressed part of town. Never consider yourself a lesser journalist because you take the time to find encouraging stories about good people in your community.

Like a manager trying to improve a workplace, never forget to inspire your community even as you seek and honestly confront the challenges which face it. That’s what “doing something good” for your community really requires.