June 4, 2004

Custodian of fact…

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.

Ververs concludes:

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.)

8 Responses

  1. ‘Fair’ or ‘True': Pick One

    Andrew Cline makes a persuasive argument why “fairness” undermines journalistic objectivity….

  2. Michael Greer 

    I would like to vote for an agonistic conception of “news.” In other words the more scandalous, complex, in some cases, fictional “an event” is, the more the community, paradoxically, has to gain from it. My reason is rooted in an interpretation of Plato’s _The Laws_ which is provided in Robert Hariman’s _Popular Trials_.
    The point is that the community needs to see its own laws, its ethos dramatically contested.

    Take the Scott Peterson case. See it as an instance of questioning the nature of the American family: haven in a heartless world or nightmare of destiny.

  3. bryan 

    Actually, I would disagree with Jamieson. The notion of journalism as “keeper of the fact” has a nice sound-bite ring to it, but what happens is that journalists report what they choose, so they necessarily weed out some facts and present others.

    I just finished a paper comparing two press agencies that reported about controversial events. The same events, and yet details (“facts”) that appeared in one were absent the other.

    or consider this example:
    http://arguewithsigns.net/mt/archives/001715.html

    I suspect the same thing would happen if you compared newspapers or other media. It’s nice that we all want to be keepers of the facts, but that assigns us as journalists too high a value.

  4. Bob M 

    “Fairness” builds in a bias that the unscrupulous routinely take advantage of. Offer up the most outrageous, self-serving statement you can (e.g., the Jenin massacre). Your opponents say it is not true. Both claims are (at best) presented, implicitly with equal status, and the impression is that the facts lie somewhere in the middle.

    The deck is stacked in favor of the unscrupulous here. It takes minimal effort to make an outrageous claim but a lot of effort to dig into the facts. Most of the time, it won’t happen.

  5. Rebecca 

    Here’s Jay Rosen’s take on this, or “He Said, She Said, We Said” as he frames it. This is all too little too late. It would have been more useful for the pressies to have been thinking about this stuff when they had some credibility. There is no reason to believe the press will accept responsibility/accountability unless it is forced on them by the courts. Speaking of courts, be sure to check out the presscourt.com link toward the end of Jay’s post – it’s like The People’s Court for bad reporting, but they are deadly serious about forcing accountability on a recalcitrant press. Power to the people! http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/

  6. acline 

    Michael, Bryan, Bob, and Rebecca…thanks for the interesting responses. I’m running hard this weekend. I’ll respond further beginning Monday. I appreciate all of your interest and insight!

  7. I’ve been an editor and publisher for 40 years next month and a news junky for more than 50 years.

    Reporters reflect their environments and the values of their families and mentors, and we all have our agendas, which we allow to show one way or another. It is the public’s job to obtain information from many souces and come to personal conclusions, rational or otherwise.

    Consumers are smart and decide for themselves whose reporting is honest and whose is usually suspect. Sometimes consumers perfer bias and subscribe to the Nation or N.Y. Times (totally biased) on the left or the Weekly Standard or The Wall Street Journal (for the editorial page) on the right.

    It is up to a publication’s owner to decide what to present to consumers. Tragically, publishers fall down on the job from the day they hire their editors and give them their marching orders. The reason journalism is breaking down and losing respect is that publishers aren’t hiring smart, honest editors, and editors are hiring reporters and copy editors who share their views and lack of integrity. Too many reporters and desk people are poorly supervised, as we’ve seen at the Times and USA Today. Read the comments about Fox by the editor of the L.A. Times to see how off the wall some editors are.

    Why is corporate media producing lousy products? Because it’s all about eyeballs and advertising, and except for the Journal, seldom about quality our journalistic integrity. If an employer forces good people to work in dysfunctional systems, even the best people will fail regardless of whether the employer is the CIA, CBS, the N.Y. Times or Tribune Co.

    What’s the result? In response to receiving dishonest reporting from traditional media, opinion leaders turn to blogs, message boards, C-Span, radio talk shows and cable political and financial shows, which allow them to size up sources for themselves. And when a topic is hot, Google hums. No filtering.

    Six years ago I spent $20,000 a year on several hundred magazines, newspapers and journals; today I spend less than $2,000 on WSJ, Investor’s Business Daily, Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, Value Line, an occasional USA Today and Denver paper and a few trade pubs. I read other papers online. And I spend a lot of time reading blogs and message boards and posting on the same, often while watching FOX, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC. The big 3 nightly news programs and local TV news shows are not part of my routine.

    Seems like there are a few Ph.D. thesis projects percolating here.

  8. Journalism, the truth, and facts

    Vaughn Ververs has another interesting column on the role of the news media in our increasingly noisy media ecosphere: Because the mainstream media have lost the gatekeeper role, their position of importance has fallen. Vice President Dick Cheney no lo…