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Jan 12 2012

I can’t imagine why they say print media is dying

The New York Times public editor asks something which is, IMHO, a fairly startling question:

Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

And by “vigilante,” apparently, they mean: Should the NYT bother to note whether the things people say are true or not?

Before the era of Fox News, I would have thought that the answer to this question was pretty damn obvious.  There was a time (at least I think there was) when the crowning achievements of the journalism profession were considered to occur when some kind of major investigative reporting happened.  Heck, they even award Pulitzer Prizes for that.  Guys like Woodward and Bernstein, Hunter S. Thompson, and Edward R. Murrow were considered to be doing the sort of thing you strive to accomplish, going out and telling the difference between fact and fiction.  Suddenly that’s controversial somehow?

Arthur Brisbane asks the readers:

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?

Oh gee, I don’t know.  Maybe you should ask some freaking scientists or something.

At its best, journalism can and should be a kind of science.  It’s a soft science, sure, you can’t set up controlled experiments, but nevertheless the point of science and reporting is to investigate the available evidence thoroughly, and then accurately report what you feel is the best model for explaining your findings.  You wouldn’t want peer-reviewed journal articles to consist of nothing but material like this: “We asked scientist X what he thought the result would be, and he said 17.  Then we asked scientist Y what she thought the result would be, and she said 589.  So we averaged that, got 303, and we figure the answer is somewhere around there.”

You don’t get to just ask for people’s wild-ass guessing, fail to perform any experiments, and just call it a day!  You’ve got to actually do the work and reach some kind of empirical conclusions.

This seems like the sort of thing that could be spun as a liberal or conservative issue, but it really shouldn’t be.  It’s the same kind of sloppy, lazy journalism that leads people to report uncritically on the evolution/creation controversy, and say “Hmmmm, this is really controversial, lots of strong opinions on both sides!” without bothering to mention that some people know more shit than other people, that this knowledge is harder to acquire than just taking a random survey, and that the people who study the issue in a serious way almost universally fall squarely on just one side.

In an era of YouTube and blogs and video camera phones, I can pretty much get a recording of any event that happens anywhere in the world, and I can receive that news with whatever spin I happen to feel like by choosing the information sources that suit me.  Presumably, the value that a professional media could add is by burning shoe leather, doing investigation, and filtering out nonsense that people are talking.  If they can’t actually be bothered to provide that, then they’re going to find more and more that they have no reason to exist.

Or they could just do what SMBC Theater expressed so well, and always just bring you BOTH SIDES!!!

29 comments

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  1. 1
    Orlando

    So the real question is, can a top tier media outlet like the NYT remain financially viable if they insist on the truth criterion? Or should they veer toward the lucrative Murdoch Fox news model where “facts” are invented to fit the preconceived conservative narrative?

    Who would have thunk it? This as an actual dilemma? Jeez. Guess it’s Jon Stewart for me.

  2. 2
    Anthony K

    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?

    On the surface these seem like reasonable questions (and I’ve no doubt Arthur Brisbane is sincere in his worry), but journalists unbalance the news all the time by making decisions such as choosing to interview one person over another or hoosing to publish one story over another.

    Funny that he should pick truth as the issue to become paralysed with fear over.

  3. 3
    Docsarvis

    The first 20 respondents pretty well raked the NYT over the coals for this, which is a good thing. I find it sad that journalism has sunk so low that the paper of record asks its readers if the reporters should fact-check articles. This is how we have let the climate change deniers make the public doubt scientists. There are not always two sides to every story, unless you count lies as one side.

  4. 4
    peicurmudgeon

    Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?

    Perhaps I am missing something here, but if ‘facts’ are opposing, it is highly likley that one of them is not actually a ‘fact’, and one of them is not-correct. It is not possible to be objective and fair without verifying ‘facts’.

    If the editors read the responses, perhaps they will feel some embarressment over feeling the need to ask the question in the first place. If only more news outlets would ask themselves that question.

  5. 5
    starskeptic

    America’s tombstone will have Fox’s logo on it…

  6. 6
    ChaosSong

    Does the truth really matter anymore? Did it ever? People seem to believe whatever they want to believe anyways; the folks here know that better than most. If a paper prints a truth that clashes with a reader’s worldview; more often than not the reader will dismiss the item before altering their preconceptions. Of course, I’m personally never guilty of this, being an evolved lifeform made out of pure cynicism and sarcasm…

  7. 7
    Orlando

    Breaking OT: A new poll by Poll Position shows that 43% of respondents attribute Evangelical football quarterback Tim Tebow’s success to divine intervention. Presumably by the Christian god to whom he relentlessly and publicly prays. Something like 14% disagree.

  8. 8
    Warp

    As someone said:

    “As Abraham Lincoln once said, Journalism is the first rough draft of history. Or possibly it was Thomas Edison who said that. I’m pretty sure somebody said it, because you often hear journalists quote it in an effort to explain how come they get everything wrong.”

  9. 9
    John K.

    Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?

    Oh, I see. All “facts” are just opinions. Every reporter has an opinion, so there is no way to objectively choose one claim over another.

    If only there was some way to test one fact against another one, some kind of evidence, a kind of method that could scientifically account for human bias and produce consistently repeatable results, a method that allows many experts to look at a process and determine if there are any problems with it.

    Until we can do that, all journalism is opinion! We might as well give up now. All that other stuff sounds like a lot of work anyway.

  10. 10
    John K.

    Hmm, does PZ know?

  11. 11
    John K.

    Doh, lousy reply link.

    @Orlando

    Does PZ know?

  12. 12
    Russell Glasser

    peicurmudgeon says:

    Perhaps I am missing something here, but if ‘facts’ are opposing, it is highly likley that one of them is not actually a ‘fact’, and one of them is not-correct. It is not possible to be objective and fair without verifying ‘facts’.

    I think what Brisbane is saying is a bit more subtle than you’re making it out to be, and it’s a least a little bit of a legitimate concern.

    That is, it is possibly to focus on untruths in a way that is actually biased towards one side. For instance, suppose you are refereeing a game containing Team Red, which performs 100 fouls per game, and Team Blu, which perform 10 fouls per game. During the game, you call all 10 fouls on Blu, but ignore all 100 fouls on Red. While they did in fact commit those fouls, you’re a biased ref.

    Arguably if you called 5 fouls on Red and 5 fouls on Blu, you’d be “balanced,” but if you look at it another way you’re still being biased. That’s the situation that a lot of “balanced” slanted news organizations find themselves in. They may focus entirely on one side, or they may have a tendency to try to “balance” every criticism of one side by finding something similar on the other.

    For instance, I’ve heard pro-lifers dismiss violence against abortion doctors by saying “Look, we found one case of a pro-choicer assaulting a pro-lifer in 1977, and another in 1983. Clearly this is an equal problem on BOTH-SIDES™!”

  13. 13
    Ed L

    Stephen Colbert calls it “truthiness.”

  14. 14
    Steve

    Unfortunately, the truth isn’t always sensational enough to sell papers.

  15. 15
    longstreet63

    NOte that when the reader response was universally along the lines of “Yes…Idiot!” NYT closed comments, apparently because the reader response was not what they wanted to hear. A clarifying column was then published, essentially saying the first was misunderstood, and making the case for not fact checking (in precisely the same way as before). Amusingly, links to several journalists who ‘got it’ were offered, although one actually reading those linked stories finds that they basically said ‘Yes…Idiot!”
    Unswayed by these professional opinions, Reader response was universally “Still Yes…Idiot!”
    Comments were then closed.

  16. 16
    jacobfromlost

    It’s almost as if many reporters nowadays think that actually finding things out for themselves (ie, verifying) is too hard, so they don’t find things out, and by NOT finding things out they have to assume that SOMETHING they are being told is true…

    …and therefore are biased by assuming one of the things they are being told is true. lol

    I still watch “60 Minutes” once in a while, and “Dan Rather Reports” on HD Net. Not much else is coming to mind in terms of actual investigative reporting to uncover the truth.

    Maybe Jack Nicholson was right.

  17. 17
    MegaZeusThor

    The real question is, why haven’t I ever seen this SMBC Theater episode? Efficient in it’s send-up. Also, BOTH SIDES!!!

  18. 18
    peicurmudgeon

    @ Kazim – there is a difference between ‘balance’ and facts. For example, a balanced article would discuss the positive and negative actions of Obama as president. Each of those actions is a ‘fact’. The positive may outweigh the negative, or the opposite may show up. The relative importance of each of teh acts is open to interpretation.

    If one of the Republican candidates made a claim that Obama did ‘x’ and he did not, it is only balanced if the non-fact is reported as such. Otherwise, the article is biased in favour of the Republican.

    Bias in opinion is different that ignoring factual errors.

  19. 19
    Allie

    yayyyy rape jokes…

  20. 20
    Aquaria

    You apparently are ignorant of a considerable problem a the NYT of trying to balance facts, peircurmudgeon.

    If there’s an article about evolution and creationism, it all becomes he says-she says journalism, as if both sides are equal, when only one of them has the facts.

    I mean, it’s not like this hasn’t been documented, repeatedly. Daily Howler, the old Media Whores Online, Media Matters, FAIR–several organizations have made a career of fact-checking the media, including the NYT, and finding them more than lacking.

    And it’s not like it wasn’t almost a decade ago that Paul Krugman described the problem with ‘balanced’ reporting thusly:

    If Bush said the earth is flat, of course Fox News would say “Yes, the earth is flat, and anyone who says different is unpatriotic.” And mainstream media would have stories with the headline: “Shape of Earth: Views Differ; and would at most report that some Democrats say that it’s round.”

    It’s the journalists who are treating everything as opinion, dumbass, not, you know, the people who are dealing with facts.

    Oh–wait–are you by chance a journalist, and think that you can tap-dance around what a bunch of lazy, lying stenographers for publicists and the wealthy that the so-called “profession” of journalism has become?

  21. 21
    jacobfromlost

    There is also bias of opinion ABOUT bias of opinion.

    If a reporter simply reports the facts, and the facts are disagreeable to someone (because of personal beliefs, the way they were raised, the emotionalism of the subject, etc), that someone will often claim that the reporter has a bias of opinion because they are reporting facts that are contrary to the views of that person.

    So what do we do when we have a disagreement about what the facts are? We look at evidence that is observable, verifiable, predictive, and falsifiable if we want to know what the truth is. But people who start out disagreeing with the facts don’t WANT to know what the truth is, as they think they already know.

    And if all the evidence goes against a person or group’s opinions or beliefs? They simply ignore the facts, and trudge out logical fallacies, made-up “facts”, and emotional arguments that result in the very same problems they are supposedly trying to fight. And when those problems proliferate, they rationalize them by blaming the opposing view–you know, the one based on actual facts. (“Teen sex is occurring because people are advocating condom use and sex ed.”)

    Reminds me of the dude who called in to AE once and said that if all teens simply abstained from sex until marriage, as his beliefs dictated, then there would be no pregnant teens, STD problems, etc. Is that a fact? Sure, but it’s an abstract fact that has nothing to do with how the world–and biology–actually works. We HAVE tons of facts about how to reduce teen pregnancy, STDS, etc, and all of them are not only observable, verifiable, predictive, and falsifiable, but they actually work in reality regardless of your opinion.

    Of course, if you SAY this, then you must be biased because only someone who would want this to be true would bother to dig up actual, objective facts that support their position in reality. Hence, the bias of opinion about bias of opinion. It’s almost as if they think all facts must be made up because that’s how they came to their facts.

  22. 22
    jacobfromlost

    Sort of related topic…

    Has any reporter asked Haley Barbour if he pardoned those criminals based on religious reasons? I know he said something about “Christian” forgiveness, but I have a sneaking suspicion that these guys were pardoned based on “accepting Christ” or being “born again” (perhaps quietly behind the scenes where word was passed to Barbour, but I suspect the ones who worked at the Governor’s Mansion were “born again” with the governor’s knowledge or input).

    Of course, that question will probably never be asked of Barbour because Republicans wouldn’t want to even suggest religion might have a negative consequence in this instance, Democrats don’t want to be seen as attacking religion, and reporters don’t want to risk pissing off Republicans, Democrats, and religious people everywhere.

    But I would LOVE for someone to have the guts to ask the question–of Barbour, and those who were pardoned. I’d bet good money no Muslims were pardoned, and I’d bet mediocre money that no nonChristians were pardoned.

    (And before anyone says I am biased, I will note that Barbour’s action makes no sense politically, but a religious motivation makes sense of all of it. I will also note that the biases of everyone involved, including reporters, will make it highly unlikely that anyone will even ASK this obvious question, much less investigate it. So the fact that we will likely never know the answer is directly related to the biases of others, not to mine. Also, it might be of public interest to know that murder sentences can be cut short in states with religious governors who are prone to not only believe claims of “born again Christianity”, but take legal actions of extreme clemency on behalf of people CLAIMING such a personal transformation.)

  23. 23
    peicurmudgeon

    You apparently are ignorant of a considerable problem a the NYT of trying to balance facts, peircurmudgeon.

    If there’s an article about evolution and creationism, it all becomes he says-she says journalism, as if both sides are equal, when only one of them has the facts.

    I am either not explaining myself properly or you are not understanding me. I am saying exactly what you are saying.

    Facts are facts – if a person says that Creationism is true, it is a fact that the statement was made. In the current state of journalism, that statement is left alone. In proper journalism, it would be added that the statement is blatently false, and the person who made the original statement is either ignorant or a liar.

    On the other hand, some things are not as clear cut, and more care must be taken in evaluating the differing sides to the issue.

  24. 24
    peicurmudgeon

    @ Aquaria

    It’s the journalists who are treating everything as opinion, dumbass, not, you know, the people who are dealing with facts.

    Oh–wait–are you by chance a journalist, and think that you can tap-dance around what a bunch of lazy, lying stenographers for publicists and the wealthy that the so-called “profession” of journalism has become?

    I am not a journbalist, I am a blogger who regularly calls out media misrepresentations for providing false balances, such as your example.

    But there is a difference between opinion and fact, and not everything is as clear as the example you give. It is a fact that you called me a dumbass. But the actuality is not so clear cut. Some people will likely agree with you, some people may not. Who is correct? A ‘balanced’ report would interview people with both opinions and weight the evidence. An unbalanced report would only interview people with the same opinion, or automatically assume one was correct – dumbass or not-dumbass.

  25. 25
    jacobfromlost

    “But there is a difference between opinion and fact, and not everything is as clear as the example you give.”

    I think you are oversimplifying. What if there is a difference of opinion of what the facts are? What if there is a difference of opinion on what a fact IS? On how to FIND OUT what a fact is?

    You see, I could say it is my opinion that the best way to determine facts is through observability, falsifiablity, etc, and someone else can say it is their opinion that the best way to determine facts is to see how well they conform to the bible, their values, their culture, common sense, etc. BOTH of these are opinions.

    If we are rational, we SHOULD dismiss the opinion that facts are determined by common sense, conforming to the bible, conforming to the opinions of most people in the group, etc. We shouldn’t balance the two opinions on what facts are by virtue of the fact that there ARE two opinions, and that is what is too often done in journalism…probably because news has to get ratings now, and you don’t get ratings if you tick off half the audience by demonstrating how they are wrong, so let’s just pretend everyone might be right.

  26. 26
    Tom Foss

    I think a major difference in opinion is regarding what it means to be “objective.” It seems like many news organizations believe that “objectivity” means “not taking any side,” while it really ought to mean “taking the side of the facts.”

    I suppose one problem is that journalists aren’t typically experts in the various fields on which they’re reporting, and thus don’t have the qualifications to suss out the facts in actual controversies. When presented with something like string theory, where expert scientists in the field disagree on the matter, a journalist can’t be expected to settle the matter. The problem comes in treating everything from quantum physics to evolution to the age of the Earth as if they’re that kind of controversy, with actual experts on both sides who reasonably disagree. In those cases, journalists abdicate too much responsibility to “experts,” and don’t seem to vet the expertise.

    Alternately, there are fields where ideology can really influence what conclusions and claims get made, like politics and economics. If journalists approach science as if it’s one of those kinds of fields–and FSM knows that the Creationists and AGW-deniers have been trying to paint science with that brush for decades–then it’s understandable why they’d present two sides as equal and let them duke it out. The problem is that they apparently don’t know that science isn’t such a field, and that expertise and facts do in fact matter.

  27. 27
    Knethrea

    NO! OMG! The truth has no place in a capitalistic driven media outlet if it intends to survive!!!! The people of this “great” nation has no interest in the truth. Keep it balanced to placate the ignorant and always make sure there is a controversy even if it’s all a bunch of BS. Accuracy can only be understood and appreciated by less than 10% of the US population. The rest just want a shiny toy. If the NYT wants to go bankrupt and lose advertising, then by all means report the truth.

  28. 28
    P Smith

    Fact checking used to mean ensuring the facts were correct, and the fourth estate referred to the media as a watchdog for the public good.

    Today, fact checking means preventing facts from being published, and the fourth estate is the winter home of a media conglomerate owner (as compared to his spring, summer and fall homes).

    .

  29. 29
    Bill Nunes

    Did any of you nitwits ever stop to ask yourself why the elite print media is going down the tubes? It’s because journalism has become so left slanted that many people don’t feel they can trust them anymore. All the polls reveal that about 92 percent of reporters for the Post-Dispatch, NY and LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Detroit Press, etc. vote Democratic and slant their stories in that direction.
    In the 2008 election they acted as cheerleaders for Obama with 70 persent of their stories about him being favorable while McCain stories were only 40 percent favorable.
    Do you people have any clue that half of this country is conservative and just sometimes their ideas might be as good or better than Democrats.
    Bernie Goldberg worked 28 years for CBS as a respected journalist. Then one day he wrote an editorial and asked an awful question. Was it possible that the media was being unfair to Republicans by continually depicting them in a bad light. Don’t Americans normally pride themselves on fairness? He lost his job simply because he dared to ask the question.
    Fox news was created by our left-wing print media plus left wing CBS and NBC and ABC. Rupert Murdock saw that Americans thirsted for an outlet that presented the other side of the picture. Fox doesn’t beat the socks off the competition because it makes up facts. Bill O’Reilly seldom gets his facts wrong but when he does he admits it and apologizes.
    MSNBC is far worse than Fox when it comes to outrageous. Check out why Keith Oberman was fired! O’reilly calls people he disagrees with “pinheads.” Oberman called them the “worst person in the world.” Which do you think is more extreme!!!!!

  1. 30
    Restebloggen (80) « überschaubare Relevanz

    [...] Kazim kann sich nicht erklären, warum manche Leute behaupten, Printmedien lägen im Sterben: „The New York Times public editor asks something which is, IMHO, a fairly startling question:Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? [...]

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