Facts and friction

I talked today in class about this column by the New York Times’ public editor Arthur Brisbane about whether reporters should be, as he put it (perhaps inadvisedly), “truth vigilantes.”

Read the column, and look at the comments.

Three questions: First, what do you hear all those readers saying back to Brisbane (generally speaking, leaving out the wackos)?

Second, what does it tell you about what readers expect of us?

Third, do you think that some kinds of in-context “fact checking” (rebuttals to the fact-free things people sometimes say) strike readers as bias? Why?

That last question comes from my awareness of what happened in Texas when a newspaper there started using Politifact in its stories and outright called a politician a liar. People supportive of the politician were outraged. Who did that newspaper think it was, calling someone a liar?

But in fact, I think that is the issue Brisbane was trying to get at in the column (and  the one he wrote after it to try to clarify his question).

The Twitterati went berserk, and the Times’ managing editor felt compelled to weigh in.

Your turn.

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11 Responses to Facts and friction

  1. Jessica Clark says:

    It seemed that many were shocked at the question Brisbane offered. I think the response was so numerable because people expect news organizations (especially ones of the Times’ history and caliber) to know what it’s about—to know what it’s doing. And the headline of Brisbane’s article didn’t give that impression at all. “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”… and most readers said, well yeah!, because they were surprised at the question.
    I think readers expect us to always be striving for truth in our writing. And I think more and more people are aware of the struggles that aim can bring. It’s not an easy road. Most readers though do expect us to do our jobs and to be watchdogs if the need arises. Luckily, I think readers still believe reporters are responsible for filling this role.
    As I read, the article became more nuanced than that, and I found that it seemed his question was more about the format of truth vigilance. Should the article call the person/politician/etc. out or should that sort of thing be separated from the story? And if a reporter were to do this, how would it affect the perception and reception of the article? It could be expected that those who support the person being called out will view the reporter and the article as biased. This is because if the person was called out in an article, others can now attach a reporter’s name to the event. In such a case, it’s perceived that only one person is acting rather than a group, and it seems to be more fallible in such a case. People like consensus and group action because it’s considered more fair…more democratic. If a reporter were to act outside this framework and call out a politician for lying, some will see this as one reporter’s opinion rather than truth.

  2. Hannah says:

    There’s a resounding “DUH!” in the comments section of Brisbane’s op-ed. What’s more surprising to me, though, is how negative a unanimously affirmative response can be. Times readers aren’t just answering with a yes — they’re answering with something more along the lines of, “Yes, and could you please start, like, two weeks ago?”

    That’s a good segue into the second question: What do readers expect of us? The comments make this abundantly clear. Our readers want clear fact in easy language. They want us to do the research necessary to craft articles comprised of this in order to provide useful information, not the Verbatim page in Time magazine.

    Delivering what readers expect *of* us, however, is complicated by what the comments on Brisbane’s article suggest they expect *from* us: bias. If I had a nickel for every accusation of “Liberal!” or “Mouthpiece!” in the comments section, I wouldn’t have to worry about making my rent.

    Thus, I do think in-context fact checking strikes readers as bias. I also think that good journalism doesn’t contain in-context fact checking. Pre- and post-reporting research should be incorporated in such a way that a reader doesn’t pause and say, “Yep, that’s the reporter talking. Guess I should leave a scathing comment because it’s the Internet and winning the resulting bickering match will make me feel better about myself.”

    Why? Because solid stories – especially in an election season! – aren’t be built on pointing fingers and saying, “Look how stupid this Moses thing Rick Perry said is!” They are built on a strong foundation of fact. By that logic, your check on that fact should blend right in.

    • Hannah says:

      **aren’t built on

      We ain’t aren’t be built on that there hootin’ and hollerin’… Clearly I’m eloquent this evening.

    • reedkath says:

      You’ve made some great points about how people perceive bias. It’s tricky for reporters to fact-check in context, as you say. I think there has to be a more elegant way to accomplish this that makes it plain to the reader that something someone has said is just plain untrue. What if we created a different color hyperlink (how about fire-engine red?) that we would place at the truth-offending statement, and then the reader could click in and fill the full “fact report” there? Or is that too separate?

      • Hannah says:

        I’m not sure we should focus our efforts on how to call someone out for lying. Rather, we should be quoting sources who know what they’re talking about. In the case of something like an election, there are sites like Politifact that can determine who’s got smoking trousers. I think (and am currently working on a blog post concerning this) that most media outlets have an obligation to inform readers about the candidates’ platforms, promises and public standing. Like Scott said, if someone is habitually wrong or some fundamentally terrible transgression has been committed, it shouldn’t be buried in another story — it merits its own report. Let the satirists poke fun at stupid quotes in the meantime.

  3. Really interesting conversation here. A few random thoughts:

    I think “fact-checking” that happens in the same story where an official or a candidate makes an assertion should be made to blend in as smoothly as possible. Katherine’s suggestion about hyperlinking is intriguing, but I have to wonder how you pick and choose which facts to flag. I do like the separation that strategy allows, though.

    In many instances — particularly outside an election context in which candidates are making all sorts of claims — I think the best course of action is to do the fact checking while you’re gathering information for a story. Sometimes public officials aren’t intentionally spewing misinformation; they’re simply mistaken. Reporters should be willing and able to correct those mistakes before they share them with the public in a printed story. (Of course, if an official always seems to be wrong — to the point of incompetence — that’s another story altogether.)

    Having recently done a master’s thesis on hyperlocal election coverage, one thing I found was that small community newspapers nearly always allow candidates to make bold assertions of all kinds without the reporters making any attempts to determine for the reader whether it’s true. That’s frustrating. Readers deserve better. If a candidate says city officials have ignored streets and sidewalks in the Second Ward while spending millions in the Sixth, a reporter ought to check that out. Probably doesn’t matter whether it’s in the same story. It just needs to be done.

    Along those lines, when candidates for Columbia mayor and City Council in 2010 campaigned on a platform that emphasized the increasing threat of crime and pontificating about how to fight it, the Missourian allowed them for a time to make those statements. But our truth detecting came in the form of a lengthy piece, complete with data analysis and graphics, that showed crime rates were relatively flat, and actually had fallen, from previous years.

  4. Ben Nadler says:

    I think it is an interesting question, but the example he uses doesn’t really work. Mitt Romney might look at a speech by Barack Obama and think he is apologizing for America, and a New York Times reporter might look at the same speech and think the total opposite. It would be kind of silly for the reporter to insert a paragraph saying “President Obama has never actually used the words ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologize’ in a foreign policy speech, just for the record.” People, for the most part, see the bias that Mitt Romney has during a campaign speech and simply saying “Mitt Romney continuously said that Barack Obama apologizes for America,” speaks for itself.

    I guess I am saying that that isn’t really a fact that can be checked, but is highly subjective. That is different from Mitt Romney continuously using a statistic that is wrong. For example if he said continuously that unemployment under Barack Obama increased by 15% then it would be the New York Times Reporters job to insert a sentence noting that this is factually inaccurate.

  5. Tony says:

    In response to New York Times journalist Arthur S. Brisbane’s opinion piece, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?,” readers weighed and the verdict was largely negative. Most were outraged Brisbane would pose such a seemingly obvious question. As Rex Harrison of Massachusetts put it, “Of course journalists should be truth vigilantes! What do you think you’re being paid to do?”

    These readers are looking for the truth, point blank. Many trust in newspapers, or at least want to trust in newspapers. These readers feel journalists should do what they do not have the time to do – get to the bottom of matters important to the public. To many readers, journalists exist if not for the sole purpose, then for a significant purpose, to keep public officials and candidates honest. They don’t want to know what was said at a debate. They want to know if the dialogue at the debate is legitimate. No one likes a talker who doesn’t walk. These readers certainly don’t. And they want news reporters to call out the talkers who don’t walk.

    Readers, at least Brisbane’s readers, apparently expect a lot from journalists. As Paul Nelson of Michigan said, “It’s your job to provide context and help us determine the accuracy of statements.” It honestly surprised me to see these types of comments in response to a newspaper article, as in other news outlets I will often see offensive, rude comments in the response section of stories.

    These readers expect journalists to do more than report the facts. They want us to challenge public officials. They don’t want us to roll over to simply capture the pop-culture moments, like when Rick Perry says he hopes he is the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucus. They want us to play devil’s advocate for the sake of transparency in the campaign trail. They want us to be their voice and source for truth. Citizens often don’t have the medium to voice their displeasure about a candidate’s dishonesty. When’s the last time a citizen was allowed to speak at a presidential debate, and call a candidate out? I’m guessing it only happens when someone yells out “You’re a liar!” and subsequently gets kicked out.

    In-context “fact-checking” probably strikes readers as bias because they are skeptics who simply can’t believe journalists are honest and impartial, which they have every right to feel should they choose. If a journalist refutes something Mitt Romney says, even with proof, then he or she must be a liberal. If a journalist refutes something President Obama says, then he or she is definitely a right wing nut. It’s hard to achieve balance. Perhaps that’s what readers are really looking for when they say they want unbiased coverage – balance. But it could be that a balance simply isn’t there. Maybe one candidate bends the truth more than the other. If we as journalists want to do our job, we can’t worry about readers accusing us as biased. We simply have to report the truth, balance or no.

    -Tony Lee

    (Link to my blog: http://antonylee90.wordpress.com/)

  6. Pingback: Links, Y’All — Thursday, Feb. 9 « Cold Cawfee

  7. erinfjones says:

    The comments on this story basically reflect my own thoughts: OF COURSE journalists should be truth vigilantes, was there ever a question of that? I understand the point that Mr. Brisbane is trying to make about not coming off as biased when correcting false statements, but the entire article could be re-framed to ask how to not come off as biased. Simply asking if journalists should correct statements or not seems obvious. The word that comes to mind is “duh”.
    Readers expect as much transparency and accuracy as possible. It is our duty as journalists to ask “how do you know that” and to accuracy check all statements. An accuracy check is not only verifying that someone said a particular statement, but checking that the statement is true. To not correct a false statement is to fail at being a proper journalist. It was mentioned that correcting a statement shows bias, but not correcting a statement can also show bias- and inadequacy. As long as you fact check all of the statements and don’t discriminate between the false statements that you correct, then you are being fair and unbiased. You don’t have to make biased statements, such as calling someone out as a liar. Simply correcting statements and putting those corrections into context will speak for itself. I think it would be good to try to get in contact with the person to clarify WHY they said an incorrect statement. Were they misinformed? Lying? Ignorant? Then in the story there will be even more transparency.

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