Lies, damn lies, and journalism


Lots of people* have been credited with saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.” Doesn’t matter who said it — there are plenty of lies and damn lies to go around, and far too many end up in news articles.

Last week, the New York Times Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, asked whether the newspaper should be a “truth vigilante.” His concern was when, if ever, “news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Current practice seems to be that whatever lie a public figure chooses to put out there is allowed to stand, unchallenged, unless another public figure can be found to say something different. The mainstream news media serve as microphones, just making it easier for people to hear what the politicians and other public figures say. 

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor and thoughtful critic of media ethics and practices, wrote one of the best responses to Brisbane in his PressThink blog. One brief quote from that post sums it up (though I encourage you to click on the link and read the entire post):

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere

Of course, no reporter or editor can fact-check everything, but the real issue is whether to point out lies when the reporter or editor DOES know about them (or knows enough to be suspicious. As James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, the prevailing journalistic standard “is to neutrally report ‘both sides’ — and to resist ever saying, ‘for the record, one side is just making things up.’”

Writing in the Washington Post, Greg Sargent points out a specific instance and its consequences:

The Times itself has amplified the assertion — made by Romney and Rick Perry — that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times: Herehere, and here. I urge Brisbane to check them out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing.

In other words, in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers …

As is probably evident, I’d like to see reporters point out the lies. But I must admit to being intrigued by the solution proposed by Max Read in Gawker: The Times Should Just Make Shit Up


* “There are three kinds of lies …” quote is attributed to Mark Twain, Disraeli, and Edmund Burke, among others.