You've got to know the truth to tell it

Inherent within the whole “truth vigilante” meme lies a tough question for many journalists:

“What if I don’t feel qualified to decide who’s telling the truth?”

If you’ve ever asked yourself that question, give yourself a well-earned point for honesty. The best journalists remain ever skeptical, not just of their data and sources, but of their own biases, roles and decision-making in reporting a story. But even as journalists challenge themselves, they must be able to meet those challenges.

Stenography isn’t journalism. “He said, she said” isn’t journalism. Throwing your reporting at the page and hoping that the reader figures it all out isn’t journalism. Journalism demands judgment – decisions whether a story is newsworthy, and judgments about the truth of information included within that story.

So, yeah, if you’re going to do this job effectively, you’ve got to be able to tell who’s telling the truth – and have the confidence in that decision to make it public in your reports.

Why is this even an issue? Why would journalists be working on beats where they didn’t have the deep knowledge and experience they’d need to be able to make consistent calls on the truthfulness of the information they collect?

As usual, the answer is “money.”

For more than a generation, newspapers have been going cheap on newsroom talent – laying off experienced (and relatively expensive) reporters in favor of inexpensive rookies to keep profit margins fat. And it’s not like many newsrooms have been bringing in people with law degrees to cover the courts or physicians to cover health, either. That’d cost money, of course.

But readers can find those experts online now – people with advanced degrees and years of professional experience reporting on their fields. Think that people lose their “objectivity” if they report upon a field in which they’ve trained and worked? Well, ask yourself how “objective” it is to be played by a source because you didn’t know any better. In readers’ eyes, experts beat stenographers, every time.

Sure, it’s tough to write a story with the detail that will satisfy fellow experts and the simplicity that will engage a broader audience. But it’s the news industry’s failure to do that consistently over the years that left the market open for many start-up blogs and online communities to exploit.

So now the industry’s years of going cheap on newsroom recruitment and retention comes back to haunt it. Not only don’t we have enough experts in newsrooms, we’ve developed an industry culture where we’re second-guessing when, or even whether, journalists ought to be making expert judgments.

I can’t lay this on journalism educators. I’ve taught in a j-school, and have seen first-hand how students sculpt their school experience in anticipation of what they believe future employers will want. If they see employers demanding deep knowledge and experience in specific subject areas, trust me, students will respond. But even if every journalism student loaded up with a second major and relevant work experience, the more they see other employers paying more for that same education and experience, the fewer of them will choose life in a newsroom.

Of course news organizations need to stay in the black. That’s why online start-ups without multiple layers of middle management and corporate profit requirements will continue to enjoy cost advantages over the major newspaper chains. If newspaper chains are to get leaner, they can’t continue to try doing that at the cost of newsroom expertise. That decision just drives away readers, as they look elsewhere for the truth vigilantes who can help them make sense of their daily information overload.

The days of general assignment reporters and rotating beats are over. The level of competition online simply won’t allow them anymore. Journalism is no longer a field unto itself, practiced by people who have no substantial experience in other fields. Journalism is now a skill practiced by experts in many fields, for the benefit of readers throughout their community and around the world. The news business that understand that change, and adapt to it, will be the ones that survive and profit in the years to come.

About Robert Niles

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