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