The practical problem with ‘truth vigilantism’

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s  blog posts on “truth vigilantism” have certainly generated a lot of discussion.

What is “truth vigilantism”? It’s the theory that reporters for the Times should aggressively fact-check “false” assertions made by politicians or other newsmakers in the course of reporting on them — even, apparently, if the assertion is an opinion, hyperbole or  statements that are difficult to submit to a truth test.

I thought The Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto had the best response to the dust-up:

Brisbane’s examples make clear that when he poses the question whether the Times should become a “truth vigilante,” what he is asking is whether the entire paper should become an opinion section–whether the Times’s news pages should emulate (editorial columnist Paul) Krugman, albeit perhaps with a somewhat softer tone (“misleading interpretation” instead of “complete fabrication”).

To hear Brisbane tell it, there is a demand for such a transformation. He writes that he gets emails from “readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight” and who “worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.”

If that kind of “judgment” is what they want, they can get it from Krugman and the paper’s other columnists and editorialists. Why do those readers feel something is lacking in the paper if reporters are more restrained about expressing their opinions than opinion writers are?

Exactly right. Those complaining to the Times about this seem to think that ostensibly unbiased reporters, who juggle multiple assignments across various beats, locations and time zones, should act more like hyperfocused partisan bloggers, who live to parse political speech down to the subatomic level. If you think charges of “media bias” are pervasive now, they’d be much more difficult to refute if news organizations adopted this policy.

But bias is the least of the problems with “truth vigilantism.” By far the biggest is this: Few organizations have the time, or the bodies, to do it, especially in today’s downsized, Web-driven newsrooms ruled by a culture of “first and fastest.” As Jack Shafer of Reuters points out:

But to be fair to Brisbane — and I promise not to make this a habit — I think he was asking how fully reporters must tweeze every utterance spoken by newsmakers. Politics teems with gray areas and half-truths. If a reporter were to investigate every assertion of fact — assuming that that’s possible on deadline — the story he was supposed to be working on would dissolve into pixel dust. Infinite skepticism is swell, but it requires infinite fact-checking, and who has time for that?

Holding our leaders accountable is important, but fact-checking must be practical, and it must draw a careful distinction between actual misrepresentations of facts and mere expressions of opinion, no matter how poorly framed or obnoxious they seem.

Thankfully, Jill Abramson, the Times‘ executive editor, seems to get it. She wrote this as an addendum to Brisbane’s second blog post on the matter:

We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness. Some voices crying out for “facts” really only want to hear their own version of the facts.

Good point. There are plenty of problems with independent fact-checking organizations like Polifact. It would be a shame if great news organizations like The New York Times start heading in the same direction.


One response to “The practical problem with ‘truth vigilantism’

  1. Pingback: Please, pass the ‘charming’ | A Few Things Considered …

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