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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

We report, you decide

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: No, you're NOT gonna pin this on us! We have no obligation to actually verify the information we broadcast! It's enough that someone TOLD us it was true!

In 1995, one of my journalism professors told our class something that I will never forget: Journalists look for facts; courts look for truth. Sounds pretty deep, eh?

It's true, to a certain point. Journalists do look for facts. But I'm reluctant to think that morose Eugene Meese meant that the current state of journalism is something to aspire to. I'm sure he didn't mean that journalists have no obligation to check their "facts".

Journalists usually fall back on their traditional defense. This won't work in a court of law during a libel case, but it often placates the court of public opinion: This is Joe's fault. He said it was true, and we didn't report that it was true, we just reported that Joe said it. Our hands are clean.

You see, journalists, particularly bad ones, don't think it's up to them to weigh competing accounts of how something happened. This is how the "intelligent design" morons got into the news in the first place: they are mavericks (see previous LMK-i-A entry) with an alternative version of the story, so that's good enough for most reporters.

I was watching the Daily Show one evening when one of their "reporters" pointed this out. Rob Corddry (I think) was expounding on something ridiculous as usual, and had quoted two competing versions of the story. Jon Stewart asked which was true. Corddry gave a condescending laugh: "Jon, I'm a reporter! My job is to tell you exactly what one person said and exactly what the other person said! I don't pick between them! That's for the viewer to decide!"

Yes, it's for the viewer to decide. It's funny, because there are very few viewers who understand that reporters think this. For what my opinion's worth, this shows that journalists pay very little attention to their own industry. You would think that by now, they would have figured out that people don't think that they are supposed to make up their own minds about who is telling the truth. People think that because something's on the news, it must be true.

When you really probe, you'll discover that reporters do understand this, but you have to ask the right questions. When you're talking about the news, they'll tell you it's up to the viewer to decide who's telling the truth. But just ask them about advertorials, and the mask cracks. Most reporters hate advertorials (ads that are designed to look like news stories). Why, I wonder, when news consumers are making up their own minds? It definitely wouldn't be because they read these advertorials and believe they're true because they're in the paper, right? That would imply that people unquestioningly believe advertorials but use critical thinking on the rest of the paper. So that can't be it.

2 comments:

Torq said...

*chuckles* so what would the definition of a "fact" be in this case? A Fact: Something that someone said at some point in time which may or may not have any bearing on what is true.

This is weird but would certainly make arguing something on the basis of "facts" easier. I actually thought it was the job of the professional propagandist to subtly redefine terms to manipulate others. Quite worrisome!

Steve & Megan said...

The "fact" would be that someone said something. This makes everything much easier: you can prove that, especially if you tape-record your interviews.

Proving that what the person said was actually true is much more difficult, so many reporters skip this step. This is what gets them into trouble in libel cases: it's not enough that the person said it.