A Vanishing Species: Fact-based Journalism

“Well, opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.”

– Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry in “Dead Pool”


Here is the sad story about FACT.  The unfortunate fellow has been thumped on the noggin, hog-tied, and dragged unconscious into a locked closet by OPINION, SPECULATION, and RHETORIC.

The big enablers of this Gang of Three?  The Internet and social media with a naive accomplice in traditional media.

Nary a day goes by when you can’t read in blog comments, online forums, and on social networks reasoning like this:

“Well, that’s my opinion and there are never right or wrong opinions.”

Generally, this is the argument people use to justify irrational belief systems that have no scientific or factual evidence to back up their claims.  And while it is technically true that no opinion can be wrong, it is intellectually dishonest to believe that the facts used to support your opinion cannot be wrong.

We live in the age of Instant Opinions.  Where people can quickly and easily assemble a rationale for any opinion by cherry picking “facts” wrapped in propaganda and then broadcasting it to large – even global – audiences of like-minded individuals.  Once the point of view gets established with these audiences it becomes “news” for traditional media outlets.

This is how we get news cycles on fictional topics such as:

  • President Obama not being born in the United States and not having a U.S. birth certificate
  • That vaccinations against dangerous diseases causes autism in children
  • That the Holocaust did not actually happen and is a Jewish conspiracy
  • That the Obama healthcare plan is a “government takeover” and included death squads for the elderly
  • That climate change had been made up by a small number of scientists with an environmental agenda
  • That biological evolution is a disputed scientific theory

Blogs and social networks such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are enormous enablers of this trend.  The new media reality is that a well-stated opinion – told loud and often enough – has powerful social currency.  Today a well-stated opinion can carry more weight than a wheelbarrow full of facts that dispute it.

This is why journalism may be more important now than at any other point in U.S. history.  Journalism can keep the Gang of Three at bay.  Or at least it should.  Unfortunately, much of our mainstream news media don’t practice journalism anymore.  They have become reporting hubs – parroting back the opinions of others and then adding their own Instant Opinions to the mix.

Entire networks – FOX-NEWS and MSNBC – have become propaganda machines for Republicans and Democrats respectfully, specializing in the sensational and plucking just enough facts to enhance their OPINION, SPECULATION, and RHETORIC.  The recent Kony 2012 video is the case in point.

The video created by Invisible Children is about Africa warlord Joseph Kony who has abducted and killed thousands of women and children in Uganda.  The video calls for an effort by the United States and the West to intervene and capture Kony.  The video is an emotionally powerful 30 minutes that has the look and feel of a documentary, which is why it is viral sensation.

But it isn’t. Despite the video’s seemingly good intentions, it plays hard and loose with the facts.  According to a piece in the Huffington Post:

“The campaign’s newfound attention was quickly accompanied by criticisms of the Invisible Children organization, including its aid-spending practices, a controversial photo of the NGO’s members posing with guns, and the project’s neo-colonial undertones.”

But most of the criticism of the video comes from it’s over simplification of the facts and ignoring inconvenient realities that didn’t fit with the tone and context of the video such as the role of the Ugandan government and the fact that Kony has already been pushed out of Uganda and survives with only a rag-tag collection of soldiers.

So what can real journalism do to fight back?  Here are four ways to get started.

First, there needs to a redefinition of journalism for the 21st century which includes a strict set of tenets that incorporates new media and emphasizes a move away from straight reporting to a renewed commitment to fact-based investigative and expository journalism.

Second, journalism needs an infusion of courage.  Stop pandering to audiences with “he said/she said” stories that reward PR savvy pundits for taking and promoting extreme positions.  Today’s mainstream press ignores rationale and moderate voices for the sex appeal and ratings of the provocateur.

Third, stop relying on other journalists as sources.  Journalists have no business being at the center of the stories they are covering.  It’s unprofessional and blinds objectivity.  Journalists aren’t supposed to have sides and their only master should be the truth.

Fourth, there needs to a renewed commitment to the facts and calling out those who trample them.  If a politician or pundit states falsehoods and outright lies then that person needs to be called out.  The story should be about their lies and distortions with the real facts presented.  Then stop using those people as sources.  When the spin doctors get banned for lying – they’ll adjust their tactics.

What do you think?  How can journalism be saved in the age of social media?


Big Think: “Our Dangerous Inability to Agree on What is TRUE”

Journalism Ethics in the 86,400-second News Cycle

Huffington Post post on Kony 2012 video

Media Nation on Kony video

Is American Journalism Working Anymore?

Newspapers Should Replace Reporting with Journalism

4 Responses to “A Vanishing Species: Fact-based Journalism”

  1. Concerned Citizen March 15, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    You no longer have the power of authority and that scares you.

  2. Hi Concerned Citizen:
    I’ve never had that kind of power of authority, but thank you for thinking that I did.

  3. I don’t have an answer, except to say in my opinion (ha!) you’re identifying the central problem of the new information age–too much interpretation, not enough reporting. Conclusions become too easy to jump too. One reason journalists have so much trouble telling “the facts” is the effort to be “balanced” on issues such as global warming or evolution, which are, in an objective sense, not really balanced at all. I don’t think it’s the “power of authority” you’re missing, it’s the sense that “Concerned Citizens” are paying attention to a common set of facts and not just tuning into to echo chambers of narrow-minded opinion.

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