I agree with communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson that journalism should be the “custodian of fact.” This means that journalists should get to the bottom of factual disputes rather than simply allow sources to spout off without verification of the “facts.”
This is an expanded notion of verification, which has meant that journalists should verify the assertions of sources with other trusted sources. But the fairness bias encourages journalists not to do very much fact checking, e.g. Senator Blowhard makes a claim; Joe Reporter verifies that Jane Source agrees; Joe Reporter gets “the other side” from Senator Numbnutz; verifies with Sally Source; then Joe Reporter writes is up. But what if Senator Blowhard has his facts wrong?
Okay, so what’s a “fact“? Where do they come from? Facts are found (created) by measurements or (verified) eyewitness accounts. You may notice that the two parts of my definition don’t match. A measurement, as long as we agree on the instrument of measure, gives us a number to work with. But human perception of events comes filtered. What I’m getting at here is this: facts are not necessarily easy things to nail down unless we’re measuring (and even then we can run into problems).
There can be no argument over facts in themselves. We argue about how facts are measured and what facts mean. And we argue about assertions of fact until such assertions are established as fact. Reporters should consider the statements by sources as assertions of fact until such time as the reporter can establish them as facts. The news organization, then, should not publish unverified assertions without disclaimers or qualifiers.
Vaughn Ververs, while asserting that traditional sources of news in America are losing influence, posits something related to Jamieson’s custodian idea:
What we believe is necessary to keep these news sources in their traditional role of major and trusted news outlets goes far beyond their current Web sites, beyond color pictures in the paper, beyond embedded reporters in the field or fancy redesigns. These organizations need to take a bigger step forward and establish themselves as the places that validate the news. Don’t just report the “news”; define the accuracy of it.
Ververs concerns himself with the influence of traditional news media and how that influence may be waning. He claims such outlets as network television always appear to be one step behind the internet and the cable news channels. These traditional media are left to recap the news.
Major media outlets need a makeover to regain their place at the top of the news food chain. They cannot be afraid to touch any story in any way. They must debunk or disprove stories and rumors that are not true. They must go beyond the “sources” they cultivate at cocktail parties and rely on solid information to back them up. They need to be biased by admission and balanced by the same. Consumers are hungry for information they can trust. Give it to them.
Make this the new news motto: Find the truth, report the truth, and explain why your organization believes it’s the truth. A great many pros may find themselves surprised at how warmly that approach would be received.
I don’t think he should have introduced the concept of “truth” here. But I suppose he’s using it the way so many journalists do: as roughly a synonym for “facts” or that which we get when we discover and report facts.
On the other hand, Ververs is arguing for something more than Jamieson; he’s arguing for a concept of verification that includes media transparency, i.e. how journalists gather this information, and what they think about it, is as important as the assertions of sources.
The rhetoric of journalism changes over time. I have argued that the current model is changing, and the ideas that Jamieson and Ververs present appear to me to follow the path that I see leading to the future of journalistic practice.
Ververs final assertion is a hypothesis. All news media should test it.
UPDATE (10:15 a.m.): William Powers claims:
The modern media have an insatiable need for exactly the kind of work that the news scandals are all about–stories that are a bit suspect, tendentious, vaguely too good (or bad) to be true. This hunger is not conscious, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find reporters or editors who’ll tell you that this is what they seek. In fact, whenever a media scandal breaks, it’s other journalists who run around in a collective panic, wondering how this could possibly be happening again.
Here’s how. The news business often rewards people who get the story not quite right–reporters who allow errors of fact, judgment, and emphasis to subtly shape their work. I say “subtly” in order to make a distinction. I’m not talking now about the outright liars and fabricators; they are monstrous caricatures of a more common and insidious type. I’m talking about some of the smartest, hardest-working people in the news business, individuals who have a record of basically getting things right — and, in many cases, doing so before anyone else.
As it happens, some of this breed have an inborn knack for delivering the news in a way that’s especially magnetic and, well, newsy. They produce the stories that leap out of the pack, get people talking, have an impact, sell papers, win prizes. But the magnetism of these stories is often rooted in their flaws–flaws of fact, judgment, and emphasis.
Another example of the narrative bias of journalism.
I think that being the custodian of fact could be a new way for journalism to scratch the dramatic itch. Instead of simply pitting one source against another in a battle of assertions, or emphasizing one over the other to create drama where little exists, what if one of the sources is a liar, an incompetent, or a political manipulator? Hmmmm…now that could be a story. (Yes, I’m a bit offended by my own assertion. But one “fact” I think we must face: Narrative bias, which affects all human communication, is not going away–nor should it.)