February 10, 2004

The Truth About the Fact

Everything changes. Nothing changes.

This is where journalism finds itself – struggling to adapt to a universe of media in which core journalistic principles not only play an increasingly lesser role in defining the boundaries of “news” while also suffering the criticisms from within and without that only by re-embracing those basic tenets can the profession save itself from withering into irrelevance among a public for whom Michael Jackson is “news” and inequity, injustice and political chicanery are business as usual.

What hasn’t changed? The journalistic need to put the day’s events into an understandable context for the reader or the viewer. In other words, in the memorable quote from the 57-year-old Hutchins Commission report, A Free and Responsible Press: “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”

Nothing changes. Those are wise words, and they are still ignored by too many journalists.

In an interview with On the Media, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who dislikes sloppy reporting about as much as he does the current occupant of the White House, provided an example of facts reported without truth – mainstream newspaper coverage of the Bush budget that failed to explain the math behind the numbers. Reporters, said Krugman, simply didn’t do their arithmetic.

Referring to a Washington Post story on the budget release, Krugman said: “The first ten paragraphs were exactly as the White House media affairs would want them to be, and you didn't get substantive criticism until paragraph 26.”

Host Brooke Gladstone tossed Krugman this softball: “How much do you think that standard journalistic practice contributes to what amounts to misleading coverage?”

And he swung away: “I think it's partly standard journalistic practice. It's partly the – if the president says that the earth is flat, the news story at best says ‘Shape of the Earth Views Differ.’”

Krugman blamed the budget coverage partly on White House bullying and partly on poor preparation by reporters. He said:

“I think the point is when you see lines that say things like ‘critics say that the administration's forecast of cutting the deficit in half is unrealistic’ -- you shouldn't be saying that. The newspapers should say ‘the administration's forecast of a deficit of 230 billion dollars in 2009 omits 190 billion dollars of costs resulting from programs that the administration itself is advocating.’”

Regardless of whether you agree with Krugman’s position on the political wisdom of the Bush budget, he’s right about the journalistic weakness of that type of story.

Facts are everywhere these days. Context and understanding and truth are not. One reason for the magnetism of opinion masked as news is a public hunger for someone, anyone, to help them make sense of things. The same desire propels the popularity of bloggers, who offer their audiences, large and small, a point of view with which to interpret the facts (as well as the critical opportunity to engage with the author and their fellow audience members).

Must journalists then be advocates? No. As Krugman said:

“There's a difference between advocacy and simply describing the facts. So if you say that the improvement that is forecast in the deficit … relies upon Congress not renewing some expiring tax provisions which the administration has urged Congress to renew, then you're not being partisan in saying that. You're just saying -- look, this number here is not the number that would result from the administration's own policies. … We're actually just talking about arithmetic.”

I am sure someone will dismiss Krugman’s comments because of his political views or dismiss my agreement with him as Pollyannaish dreamings that don’t take into account the demands of daily journalism.

To you I say: Forget about the Bush budget. Apply the Hutchins Commission quote to your local newspaper. Do its stories about the city or school district budget go beyond a recitation of numbers and a comparison to them being greater or lesser than the year before? Does it seem as if the reporter who wrote the story understands financial principles? Did he or she even get the math right?

I was talking to a small-town reporter the other day about training and he told me his newspaper paid to send him to a workshop on basic accounting and financial reporting. Was it useful? I asked. Not really, he said, because he couldn’t understand the material. How is this reporter supposed to write an informative story on a company’s earnings if he can’t read a balance sheet? How can he have a substantive interview with a CEO, or even a city manager about a local budget.

Context derives from knowledge and understanding. The public needs it; journalists have an obligation to deliver it.

News is everywhere. That’s changed since Hutchins. Context matters more than ever. That hasn’t.

 On the Media Just the Numbers?

Posted by Tim Porter at February 10, 2004 07:57 PM

Great stuff, Tim. Dead on right!

Posted by: d rabin on February 11, 2004 04:37 PM
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