Truth – Not Sides – Is What Matters in Journalism


When I was a newspaper reporter, I heard the expression dozens of times a week:

If only more journalists and bloggers were as diligent as Tintin.

If only more journalists and bloggers were as diligent as Tintin.

“There are two sides to every story.”

I heard it from sources.  I heard it from editors (especially from editors).  I heard it from fellow reporters.  Hell, I probably muttered those words a hundred times myself.  Probably as my lame excuse why I was giving equal weight to a contrarian and probably dubious point of view.

Because there are NOT two sides to every story.  There never have been.  Sometimes there is one side to story.  Other times there are three or four and sometimes even dozens sides.  The notion that there are two distinct and equally relevant sides to every issue is ridiculous.  But that mentality continues to permeate journalism and the web – especially blogging.

It’s one of the reason why journalism is struggling.  As mainstream publications cutback on reporting staff and put more pressure on remaining journalists to produce copy – more he said/she said stories are published.  Why?  Because they are easy to write.  Here is how NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen of ThinkPress describes the fundamental features of a he said/she said story:

  • “There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.”

This two sides to every story – he said/she said dynamic have produced coverage of:

  • “Death panels” for the elderly as part of Obama’s healthcare reform package even though no such thing exists
  • Holocaust deniers claiming that one of history’s most tragic events never even occurred
  • The birthers movement who are claiming Obama isn’t an American citizen and should be removed from office

Now granted some of the coverage on the examples above is simply propoganda – the spreading of lies even when you know they’re lies.  But many mainstream publications and blogs have reported on the issues above giving equal voice to the people who promote these fictional point of views.  There is no “other” side of whether or not the Holocaust happened.  To even give a voice to Holocaust deniers in a serious news article is to do a disservice to readers – and to society.

But this is what happens in a polarized political environment divided between Democrats and Republicans.  The idea gets pushed that there are two sides – and only two sides – to every issue (as if every Democrat and Republican thinks exactly the same and that nuance doesn’t exist).

The job of a journalist should be simple: Discover the truth.  Explore all the angles if necessary – giving a voice to dissenters with an opinion based on facts and reason.  This could be one side, two sides or many sides.  But at the end of the day reporters – those working for newspapers and those working for blogs – need to provide readers with what is real.

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6 Responses to “Truth – Not Sides – Is What Matters in Journalism”

  1. We appreciate this article at http://www.truthiswhatmatters.com. Also interestingly the co-host of our show is Brad Snell. Perhaps somewhere in your distant ancestry you guys are related. I also read your article regarding Miracles. Man there is a disconnect in that article. Jesus said he would die and be raised on the thrid day. (A prophecy) Then he was. What more of a miracle are you looking for?

    Your fellow life travellor,
    Ray Luff

  2. Hi Ray:
    Appreciate your comments. But perhaps you should have left them on my “other” blog.

    Jesus also predicted the end of the world within a generation several times in the New Testament, including this passage from Mark 13:30-33:

    “….This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished….But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.”

    A prophecy – that failed to materialize. And is still failing to materialize. So apparently not all of Jesus’ prophecies came true. I expect 100 percent accuracy from my gods.
    Best,
    George

  3. You start your quote in the middle of the paragraph. the paragraph starts in verse 28.

    “Now learn a parable from the fig tree (symbolic of Israel); When her branch is yet tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know summer is near: so you in like manner when you shall see these things come to pass, know that the summer is near, even at the doors. Truly I say to you that this generation shall not pass until all things are done.”

    Israel was not a self ruling nation when Jesus said this. In fact they had not been for 600 years prior to Jesus. It is only in 1948 that the Jews received rule over their nation again. That is when the fig tree started putting forth its leaves. Some argue it started more fully in 1967 with the reclamation of Jerusalem. Jesus said that there will be those that live to see the end of the age and all the prophecies regarding it who see this miracle unfold.

    We would like to discuss with you your views on our show possibly. Let us know if you are interested in debate there.

  4. Hi Ray:
    I like how you conveniently add that the fig tree is Israel – literally out of no where. Most reasonable people would put the fig tree into the context of the paragraph itself and determine that Jesus was telling people it was now summer and a generation “will not pass until things are undone.” But good luck with your preparations for the end of times.

    If you’d like to continue this debate, I suggest moving it to Artful Hatter under the proper posting. This is my social media blog after all.

    For your convenience: http://artfulhatter.com/2012/03/03/the-bibles-unimpressive-miracles/

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  2. It is not what you think that matters, truth is what matters. « Truth Is What Matters - May 30, 2012

    […] http://hightalk.net/2009/08/25/truth-not-sides-is-what-matters-in-journalism/ […]

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