Straightforward answers to questions we shouldn't even have to ask: New York Times edition.

The Public Editor of the New York Times grapples with the question of whether the Times' news reporting ought to get the facts right.

The question is posed nicely in a letter quoted in the piece:

“My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”

Arthur S. Brisbane, the Public Editor, responds by asking:

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

Here's a suggestion: Budget some money for fact-checking, whether by dedicated fact-checkers or the reporters themselves. And then, make sure every piece of the story that makes a factual claim -- whether it is in the reporter's background or analysis, or in a direct quotation from someone else -- is checked against the available facts. Tell us whether the claims are supported by the available evidence. Present the readers with the facts as best they can be established right there in the story.

Because people reach for newspapers to get factual details of things happening in the actual world we're trying to share. If the paper of record views getting the facts right as a style choice, where the hell is the public supposed to get the facts?

6 responses so far

  • ata says:

    Spot on. This is the kind of news service I would actually pay money to read. (In the case of all too many newspapers, I'd have to charge.) With that newfangled hypertext weave thingie a publication could even inject fact-checks without disrupting the flow of the reporter's text.

  • The problematic word in your otherwise excellent suggestion is "budget." As any veteran journalist knows, newsroom managers don't have the money for fact checking. You could argue it's just matter of time, but time = money in the form of larger staff to compensate for reduced output due to time spent checking facts.

    A possible alternative is to ensure every reporter assigned to a story has enough experience in the subject to quickly spot falsehoods from their sources, and the ability to quickly run down the truth. But that costs money, too. And what are cub reporters supposed to do when editors tell them to get off their butts and file the story?

    I like where online journalism is going -- the potential to hyperlink all factual claims to notes and citations is a promising though embryonic development. But for deadline journalism, fact-checking just ain't going to happen.

  • If you don't have the budget to fact check, you don't have the budget to call yourself a reliable journalist in any meaningful sense.

  • JR says:

    The idea that deadline journalism can't support fact checking renders it nearly useless to me. An article containing a mix of facts and speculation disguised as facts has a name: short fiction.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    If a reporter accurately quotes candidate Jones, 'The earth is flat." , any comment on the correctness of the statement is a matter of opinion (well supported, one would hope) on the part of the reporter. Is it really the role of the reporter to editorialize in the context of reporting? Isn't that what editorial pages and politifax are for? Or, for that matter, the informed reader?

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      A crucial question may be what role newspapers see themselves playing in the production of informed readers.

      If their stance is "caveat lector," they probably need to carry disclaimers that articles that appear to be making factual claims (or relaying assertions of facts made by others) ought not to be regarded as factual.