IDEAS FOR AN INFORMATION AGE
By Jack Fuller
THE TRUTH OF THE NEWS
The thought that news reports should be true dawned on journalists only recently. Until well into the twentieth century, most American newspapers propagandized on nearly every page. This sometimes meant strict adherence to a political party line. Sometimes it meant reflecting the personal and often eccentric views of a single owner. People selected their newspaper or newspapers in full knowledge of what they would find there. In fact, most readers probably chose papers for the slant.
During the first decades of this century, the Progressive Era ideal of disinterested judgment in the public interest took hold of important figures in journalism. Later, university training of journalists became more commonplace, as did the idea that news was a profession rather than a trade. The number of newspapers serving individual communities began to decline. Surviving papers passed out of the control of the founders and their families and into the hands of the professional managers of publicly held corporations. All this led to the sense that journalism should aspire to some higher standard of veracity. Publishers had always claimed to be printing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but suddenly journalists began taking this literally. It was an important step, and a salutary one for the quality of public discussion. But to this day many of its implications remain inadequately examined.
This is not surprising, since most news people talk as if they think the examined life is hardly worth living. They consider themselves skeptics, but this is not so much a matter of philosophy as of style. Even among themselves, they rarely discuss the nature of the claims of truth they make in their work or the basis of the disciplines they follow in furtherance of these claims. And when they do think about the underpinning of their reports, they usually get no further than debating a two-source rule for unattributed statements or repeating the catechism of Chicago's legendary institute of street wisdom, the City News Bureau: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."
The considerations that determine when journalists feel free to print a statement as fact typically do not take the form of written rules. They vary from news organization to news organization, passing down the generations by the process of example. And they are sometimes utterly self‑contradictory. The same editor may reject one story for want of neutrality and another for insufficient authority of judgment.
The issues of fact journalists have to decide cover an enormous range. Often a newspaper must act in the face of quivering uncertainty, as when it announces which candidate has won an election before the vote has been tallied. (A mistake can leave a lasting mark, as the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline marked the Chicago Tribune for decades. To this day the Tribune has an unwritten policy that it is better to be last than wrong.) A newspaper sometimes must even decide when to call a man dead, for example in the chaotic aftermath of an assassination attempt or when a totalitarian society hides its leader's demise. It has to attempt to state fact through the smoke and thunder of war and recognize the error that often hides in what Clausewitz called the "vividness of transient impressions."
At the other end of the scale, a newspaper must decide when to believe the representation of a letter writer that he has given his real name, or of a person calling in from a community arts group that a concert will take place on a given day at a given time, or of a police officer that a burglary took place at a particular address. Even these decisions can involve great uncertainty. When I was about to take my turn at City News Bureau as a lad of eighteen, my father (a City News veteran) gave me this bit of advice: "When a fire is burning, you're going to be the only one who cares how the dead spelled their names." (Or at least he said words to that effect, if my memory serves me correctly.)
At another level of complexity, journalists make judgments about when to report the statements of authorities. We commonly rely blindly on scientists, economists, engineers, and other experts, all the while purporting to be ruthlessly skeptical. And the judgment journalists make concerning which government statements to pass on to the public as fact‑which to report as debatable and which simply to disregard‑stands near the very center of the press's social purpose in a self‑governing society.
WHAT IS NEWS?
What is the proper standard of truth for the news? To answer that, one must first come to some clear understanding of what news is. Even at its most presumptuous, the news does not claim to be timeless or universal. It represents at most a provisional kind of truth, the best that can be said quickly. Its ascription is modest, so modest that some of the most restless and interesting journalists have had trouble making any claim of truth at all.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee, then a writer for Fortune Magazine, savaged the whole idea of journalistic truth:
Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism: but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what any even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those inachievable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential falsehood . . . . [J]ournalism is true in the sense that everything is true to the state of being and to what conditioned and produced it [which is also, but less so perhaps, a limitation of art and science]; but that it is about as far as its value goes . . . . [J]ournalism is not to be blamed for thi;s no more than a cow is to be blamed for not being a horse.
Even accepting that news is not the kind of truth that would meet the rigors of science or the clarity of revealed religious insight, there is still too little agreement on how to define it. Though journalists might agree the beast is a cow, they will debate what breed and how much milk it can produce. Look at one day's newspapers from a dozen cities and you will find, even correcting for local factors, no consensus.
One might be tempted to say that news is anything that news organizations report. In fact, this definition has adherents among a few journalists whose fascination with power leads them to overestimate their own. It also appeals to certain outsiders, such as those who encourage the media to do more uplifting stories in the expectation that‑they‑might revise grim reality as easily as they revise a sentence.
But the definition of news does not have to be so empty in order to explain most variations in coverage. Most respectable journalists on American newspapers would, I think, roughly agree with this statement: News is a report of what a news organization has recently learned about matters of some significance or interest to the specific community that news organization serves.
This narrows the debate over the news value of any particular item but does not lead to unanimity. The New York Times may consider a vote in Congress on free trade to be the most important story of the day while the New York Daily News leads with a deadly fire in the Bronx. This is because of each newspaper's understanding of the community of readers it serves and, perhaps, because of differing judgments about what is significant.
There are some papers, to be sure, that do not seem to be concerned with the element of significance at all. Such a paper would always go with a sex scandal over a coup attempt in the Soviet Union. Most contemporary journalists would scoff at this as pandering, but the honest ones have to say that they, too, take account of the pull of basic (even base) human curiosity; the difference is whether any consideration of larger interests comes into play.
What is significant will always be a matter of debate, but in general the evaluation should turn on the foreseeable consequences. Significance and interest provide separate bases for calling an event or piece of information news, and either may be sufficient. No matter how few people were interested in reading about strategic arms limitation talks, the enormous importance of these negotiations to the future of the planet made them extremely newsworthy. And no matter how insignificant Michael Jordan's performance in minor‑league baseball may have been to the history of the United States, the deep popular interest in it justified extensive coverage.
THE FUNDAMENTAL BIASES
My proposed definition of news includes several elements that are not wholly subjective (though this does not mean they are unambiguous): timeliness, interest for a given community, significance. These look beyond the journalists' personal preferences outward to phenomena in the world that can be discussed, if not measured.
The elements of the definition also suggest some ways in which the journalist's report of reality is likely to be fundamentally biased.
First, journalism emphasizes the recent event or the recently discovered fact at the expense of that which occurred before or had already been known journalists recognize this bias and talk about the need to put "background" information into their pieces. But commonly the internal logic of reporting puts "background" information very much in the background and tolerates little more of it than is absolutely necessary to permit the reader to make some sense of the new material. From time to time a newspaper may go back and attempt to tell about an event or issue comprehensively, but this is very special treatment. The bias of immediacy is the rule.
Second, the journalist has a bias in favor of information that interests his audience. This helps explain the favorite complaint about news‑that it accentuates the negative. People's curiosity shows a tropism for misfortune. Disaster always becomes the talk of a community in a way that good fortune less commonly does. Trouble touches some people's empathy at others' sense of doom. Fear and anger operate strongly at greater distances than love, so bad news travels farther. One might delight to hear that the daughter of someone he knew had just received a prestigious scholarship, but he would shudder at the brutal murder of a stranger's child a continent away.
The bias of interest also means that the audience's blind spots will tend to be blind spots in the news. If people are generally indifferent about a particular subject‑say international trade talks such as GATT — the journalist knows that it will be very difficult to make them pay attention to it, regardless of how important it may be in their lives. Whole areas of inquiry go years, decades without attention in the news until they become involved in an event that captures people's imagination. The engineering of bridges receives scant notice until a large span collapses. Human retrovirology meant nothing to the general population until the scourge of AIDS. Even disciplines that find themselves more commonly in the news — economics, law, medicine — are lit up piecemeal, depending on the fascination of the day. The Phillips curve in economics reaches public print when in defiance of it inflation and unemployment both begin to run high. Even an obscure field of law such as admiralty might get an examination in the news when something of sufficient drama happens upon the high seas. We learn everything we never wanted to know about the human colon when a president has part of his removed.
Walter Lippmann described the press as a searchlight that restlessly prowls across the expanses, never staying on any feature for very long. Actually, human curiosity is the searchlight. We journalists just go where it points.
Finally, there is a bias toward what occurs close to the audience's community. Often this manifests itself as a simple matter of geography. A National Lampoon parody of a hometown newspaper called the Dacron Republican‑Democrat some years back had a page one headline that read: "Two Dacron Women Feared Missing in Volcanic Disaster." The drop head read: "Japan Destroyed."
Community is not always defined by physical proximity. Communities of interest have newspapers, too, and the list of publications includes more than the trade press. Consider, for example, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Both have specialized audiences and are edited to satisfy their interests. USA Today also appeals to a distinct public‑the business traveler away from home‑and this explains many of the editing choices it makes, which would be foolish for a metropolitan daily newspaper with an audience that has a much different set of shared interests.
The bias of community provides an answer to a snobbish question one often hears: Why don't other newspapers pay as much attention to international affairs as the New York Times does? The Times recognizes that for much of its audience the world is the pertinent community of interest. A disproportionate part of its readership engages directly in international business and public policy. Since it is circulated nationally, the Times becomes a kind of local newspaper for this community (and can be as provincial about matters outside its territory as any other paper; just try to get guidance from the Times about the best easy‑listening CDs or religious TV shows). There are not enough people in most cities who are deeply engaged in international affairs to command strong international coverage in their metropolitan dailies, though in certain centers such as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago the audience is large enough to support a substantial foreign‑news commitment by the local papers, and in others such as Miami there is enough interest in one part of the world to require the newspaper to make a large commitment of space and attention to it.
The element of significance in the definition of news does not necessarily introduce a bias. Rather it might be said to be the heading under which to group all other biases. These may arise out of the social circumstances of journalists, the imperatives of the economic market on their news organizations, the culture from which a journalist comes, or the larger intellectual currents of the times: interesting issues, but I do not mean to pursue them here, as they do not distinguish observational bias among journalists from the bias of any other observer.
Later chapters will discuss in much greater depth the relationships between news and the audience and between news and the interests of a self‑governing community as well as the reasons journalists define news the way they do. For the moment, though, suffice it to note that the biases that arise out of the definition of news sharply restrict whatever truth claim journalism makes, narrowing its angle of vision and establishing the qualities of the lens.
What is the standard of truth to which the news ought to aspire? A report that meets the criteria of timeliness, interest to a community, and significance may be more truthful or less so. It may reflect reality or show it on a skew. Once again, journalists tend to look at this practically rather than philosophically. And they have suggested over the years several ways of describing the disciplines to which they adhere in order to correct against bias and maintain a proper relationship with the truth.
Accuracy, AcCURAcy, AcCURACY
When nineteenth‑century New York publisher Joseph Pulitzer made "Accuracy! Accuracy!! Accuracy!!" his motto, he meant the small things: names, ages, and addresses. Like other press barons of his day, he committed his share of sins against the larger truths. Nonetheless, his emphatic insistence upon the smaller ones demonstrated a great deal of practical wisdom: Get the little things wrong and readers will not trust you to get the big things right.
And so before going into more subtle issues, it is worth spending some time in a realm of knowledge where there isn't much question about what truth means. Not that everything is perfectly transparent even at this level. Writers sometimes face ambiguity about how to express facts that are easily verifiable. Does one call a married woman Ms. if she prefers it that way, or does the newspaper have a general style on married names? Should the cause of a person's death be described as AIDS or the opportunistic condition that was the more immediate cause of his demise? When a building carries a vanity address — One First National Plaza, One Magnificent Mile — should it be assigned a number on the street that passes by it? In most instances a convention of some kind designates proper usage, and it is possible to verify the simplest facts through sources virtually anybody would agree are authoritative‑telephone records, county files, Dun & Bradstreet.
Journalism's unacknowledged shame is how often it fails to live up to Pulitzer's standard even with respect to the most commonplace details. Nearly everyone who has ever been close to a news event has had the experience of finding the report flawed in the simple things. Susan Jones is an associate professor, not an assistant professor. John Smith is the chief operating officer and not chief executive officer of Widget Company. It is Widget Company, not Widget Corporation; Lincoln Street, not Lincoln Avenue. The burglar got in by the back window, not through the basement door. It's Diane, not Dianne.
There are as many reasons for these errors as there are occasions: sloppiness, mishearing, misstatement, mischief. But the reader of the news does not care about reasons any more than the driver of a new automobile cares why his door handle came loose. Error is the journalist's responsibility, regardless of the cause.
The rate of error is a long‑term problem of the first magnitude for news organizations. Author Michael Crichton makes the comparison between the media's failures and the quality problem American industry has had to face under the stimulus of increased foreign competition. In the case of the American media, Crichton argues, the reckoning will come not from abroad but as a result of new technology that will vastly increase the reader's choices of what to read. When anybody can have any information source he wants at the touch of a keypad, the reader will not settle for shoddy goods:
More and more, people understand that they pay for information. Online databases charge by the minute. As the link between payment and information becomes more explicit, consumers will naturally want etter information. They'll demand it, and they'll be willing to pay for it. There is going to be‑I would argue there already is‑a market for extremely high‑quality information, what quality experts would call "six‑sigma information." (The trendsetter for benchmarking American quality was always Motorola, and until 1989 Motorola was talking about three‑sigma quality‑three bad parts in a thousand. Six‑sigma quality is three bad parts per million.) [Emphasis in original]
Among journalists the resistance to this warning is as great as the resistance among electronics company executives to the warning about the inadequate quality of American TVs in the 19 6os or among automakers to the warning about American cars in the 1970s. Journalists have just as much trouble admitting error as anybody else — including the public officials whose "coverups" reporters delight in uncovering. Judging from the small number of corrections published in most American newspapers, journalists may have even more difficulty. Surely nobody thinks newspapers run so few corrections because they all operate at the six‑sigma level. Most editors do not give an accounting of all a paper's daily errors (or even of its factual errors, disregarding the spelling and punctuation mistakes, garbled type, dropped lines, transposed captions, and so on) because doing so would be too embarrassing.
Properly understood, though, a lack of corrections ought to be much more embarrassing, for it discloses a shocking lack of concern about the basic quality of the goods. Aggressive correction of factual errors, while initially provoking amusement in the public and consternation in the staff, ultimately builds both credibility and pride. It makes Pulitzer's point emphatically. It says: We do not tolerate error here. And when we discover it, we cannot rest without repairing the record. It says: While we recognize that exigencies of time and circumstance make perfection impossible in the immediate rush of the news, we are committed to making sure that anything less than perfection at the level of the readily verifiable will not stand.
The whole culture of journalism must change before simple accuracy becomes once again one of its signal virtues. In an informal survey of upper‑level editors at newspapers in other cities taken by a staff committee at the Tribune most of the editors thought little of trying to obtain a rigorous understanding of a paper's rate of error:
Editors at most of the larger papers contacted ... said such a system [of checking with people close to news events after a story runs to see how accurate they perceived it to be] opens the door to disaster, and they would never consider using it at their paper.
Typical was the remark of one editor who called the idea insane and said it would invite lawsuits. That kind of defensiveness shows how far journalism has to go.
Newspapers need to get back to the basics before changes in telecommunications force them to a public accounting. Reporters who do not meet the simple standard of accuracy should not be taken seriously, however stunning their work may appear to be in other respects. Newspapers should overcome their reluctance to use quantified performance measures and begin rigorously counting up their accuracy score. Goals should be established. Incentives should be provided to reward improvement. The quality techniques used in other industries should be applied in the newsroom, beginning with the elegant ideas that obsession with quality saves time and effort and that excellence comes most reliably as people first do the work, not through elaborate fail‑safe mechanisms. (This is because one of the most facile and common excuses given for declining quality is that financial pressure has eliminated redundancy in editing, which means fewer chances to catch errors.) If we are clever enough, we can get our computers to help us by standardizing certain error‑prone material (prep sports box scores, for example, or routine listings) so that once we get a name or address or telephone number right, it stays right. We might also build in spelling‑ and style‑checking routines tailored to identify the errors our measurement system discloses are most common. journalists will find no thrill in this project. It is as dull as making sure the doors on automobiles open and shut properly. And just as vital to the continued success of the enterprise.
When the idea of accuracy has really taken hold of a news organization, we don't hear it respond to a challenge with a "we stand by our story" statement before it has even had a chance to examine the complaint thoroughly. News organizations rightly hold up this kind of behavior to criticism when other enterprises engage in it‑petrochemical companies denying responsibility for oil spills, auto manufacturers blaming drivers for safety defects in their cars, government protecting its own. A quality‑driven news organization examines each serious complaint of error, open to the possibility that it may have been wrong, and takes the time to be sure before either correcting itself or reaffirming the truth of what it said. Of course, even a quality‑driven newspaper will make errors, because eliminating all possibility of error would bog everything down. But when it errs, such a newspaper quickly and without defensiveness acknowledges its mistake and corrects it.
The commitment to an exacting standard of truth is essential at the level where it is easy to agree what the truth is, because the disciplines at the next level become far more difficult to apply.
Almost nobody talks about objective reporting anymore. What philosophical analysis had not already undermined, radical multiculturalism did. But for many years the ideal of objectivity prevailed in the schools, and you still hear it from people who haven't spent their lives thinking about the press but simply don't like some of the things it does. So the concept of objectivity provides as good a starting place as any for the inquiry into the meaning and limitations of the words journalists have used to describe the truth discipline.
The idea of objectivity came naturally to a group of people seeking legitimacy in an era of scientific discovery. In its purest usage, the term suggested that journalism meant to be so utterly disinterested as to be transparent. The report was to be virtually the thing itself, unrefracted by the mind of the reporter. This, of course, involved a hopelessly naive notion from the beginning. And surely every reporter who has ever laid his fingers on the typewriter keys has known it.,
No one has ever achieved objective journalism, and no one ever could. The bias of the observer always enters the picture, if not coloring the details at least guiding the choice of them. I don't use bias here as a term of opprobrium. One might have an optimistic bias or a bias toward virtue. It is the inevitable consequence of the combination of one's experience and inbred nature. An observer may be able to recognize his biases and attempt to correct for them, but even when this difficult psychological effort occurs, the resulting depiction is still subjective, doubly so. The process of correction requires a self-conscious mental intervention that is at odds with the concept of objectivity.
Trying to think objectively while recognizing the universality of bias becomes a bit like trying not to think of a purple cow. An example of how difficult it is to free the mind in this way occurs whenever a news organization attempts to deal with reports concerning its own people or interests. Say WGN Television, a subsidiary of Tribune Company, which also owns the Chicago Tribune, becomes embroiled in a public controversy concerning one of its programs. Ideally, the story should be handled just as though it involved any other TV station. But quickly this equivalence becomes complicated. WGN is not like any other station. It is, for example, a superstation seen on cable television all over North America. It is a sibling of a newspaper with a long and colorful tradition and a certain position in the local and national communities. Its behavior reflects upon the family. And this gives its acts more significance than they might have had if done by a station owned by a faceless entity.
Bad publicity concerning the station could adversely affect its ratings and advertising revenues, which could hurt the price of Tribune Company stock, in which every Chicago Tribune reporter and editor has a stake through the company retirement plan. Moreover, the fact that the newspaper has a financial interest in the performance of the TV station is no secret. Most readers know this and will, presumably, be looking for evidence that the conflict of interest has led the paper to deal too favorably with the story. And so the editors will worry about the effect their handling of the story will have on the newspaper's credibility. Though the hierarchy of Tribune Company has, through long experience, developed a thick skin in these matters, everyone involved in the news decision still knows that all people have similar wiring when it comes to bad publicity: Whether they say so or not, they do not like it. And so there is a certain nervousness in the situation, coupled with a summoning up of courage, which may cause an overreaction against the source of the anxiety and an exaggeration of the play of the story. So it is impossible to handle the story disinterestedly, just as though it involved some other station, let alone objectively, as though no mind got in between the event and the depiction.
Despite the difficulty, good journalists always discipline themselves to correct against bias. And good newspapers try not to shade the facts, even when the facts are detrimental to their interests. They try to play it straight. There are many examples. New York Times labor writer A. H. Raskin was assigned in 1962 to cover a strike against the paper. His report, critical of some Times negotiators, appeared in the paper immediately after the strike ended and publication resumed; the paper's chief negotiator later resigned.9 The Tribune, in a matter close to the circumstances of the hypothetical situation I just posed, played a controversy between the TV station and the Roman Catholic archdiocese on its front page. WGN‑TV returned the favor by giving similarly prominent coverage to a later dispute between the newspaper and Chicago's Roman Catholic archbishop.
I need to make a distinction here between discipline and style. Objectivity as a discipline defeats itself. But as a style of expression marked by affectless recitation of fact, it can have considerable force. The book Friendly Fire 10 by C. D. B. Bryan provides an excellent example. Originally a series of articles in The New Yorker, which once specialized in reporting of this sort, Friendly Fire tells the story of the attempts by two parents to determine how and why their son died in Vietnam. The narrative describes in detail how the mother and father became frustrated with the way the Army bureaucracy responded to their inquiries. Without facts to moor it, the family's imagination began to race.
The first time through this book, a reader cannot help thinking the author shares the family's ideas about conspiracies and elaborate official coverups. The objective style helps build this expectation. Here is an example. In it Bryan describes the boy's mother's feelings after receiving a form letter from the commanding general of U.S. forces in Vietnam:"
Peg was still disturbed that with the exception of Culpepper none of Michael's friends had written. She was now certain that at least half the casualties in Vietnam were due to mysterious circumstances, "accidents," because maps were wrong, because someone high on drugs was shooting off his gun or because men were being killed by their own artillery. That was why no communication was permitted. What was it that Waverly mother said, the one whose son was missing in the bumed‑out tank? "We've been told by the Army that we can!t discuss this with anyone because it might 'aid and abet' the enemy."
The enemy, it had begun to appear, was anybody who opposed the war.
Bryan effectively plays upon the reader's preconceptions of journalists' biases‑particularly the biases that operated at the end of that distressing war. We assume the author thinks, along with the family, that there was official misconduct, because journalists usually do. Why else tell the story?
Bryan acknowledges his own presence in the narrative by reporting his interactions with the family. He becomes so intimate with his subjects that when he reports their thoughts (a technique discussed in a later chapter) he does not seem to overreach. Coupled with his withholding of judgment, these elements of his style only heighten the sense that he must believe what he is being told, since he does not try to set the family straight. But as the family's ideas about what happened to their son become more and more extreme, a deep discomfort comes over the reader, at least a reader who has enough acquaintance with the reality of that war to see the flaws in what the family imagined. To such a reader, both the characters and the author seem increasingly unmoored.
If the story went no further, the plain‑style rendering of the "objective" facts of the family's statements and behavior might demonstrate another difficulty of objectivity as a standard for journalism, namely that it begs the question: Whose perception of reality is the journalist attempting to be objective about? The objectivity of a mystic is different from that of a scientist, unless perhaps he is a particle physicist. How can a writer be "objective" about a reality he can only discern as it is refracted through the consciousness of others, who may disagree among themselves? But in the end C. D. B. Bryan resolves this tension by permitting the reader to understand that all along his story has been about the family's growing distance from reality. He does this, not by changing his voice, but by letting the factual details pile up until the reader has a fair idea that the young man died as the result of a tragic but not uncommon accident of war.
By the close of the book it becomes clear that Bryan's "objective" stance is a writerly technique, an effective one at that. It serves to tell this story most vividly. It permits the reader to sympathize with the family without sharing the family's view. It creates intellectual suspense as the reader wonders whether these people (Bryan included) are ever going to get a purchase on the truth. And it depicts memorably the corrosive emotional effects of public doubt and official silence.
But it is not "objective." The author does not in the end withhold his view of the events he narrates. Because Bryan knows exactly the meaning he wants to convey, he can make Friendly Fire appear objective, though in fact it represents a marvelous act of intellectual intervention.
As she often does, Janet Malcolm put the point provocatively. "The ideal of unmediated reporting," she wrote, also in The New Yorker, "is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination."12 She may be simplistic in her understanding of fiction, in which irony and the complex use of point of view (including unreliable narrators) sometimes make it difficult to determine what the writer really thinks. But she certainly has a point about objective journalism.
OBSERVER AND OBSERVED
Objectivity, along with certain other concepts journalists have used to describe their truth discipline, assumes an independence between the observer and the phenomenon observed that simply does not exist. Whether at the level of skittering subatomic particles or the clash of nations, the object may be transformed by the attention paid to it.
Good reporters know how to make themselves unobtrusive so that life will go on around them close to the way it would if they were not there. Some of the best share the shuffling, stuttering, down‑at‑the‑heel genius of the New York Times's late, legendary Homer Bigart, who had a great gift for making his intelligence seem harmless. Bad reporters try to dominate the room.
One of the most serious difficulties of contemporary reporting grows directly out of the effect of observation on the phenomena observed. The most common objects of coverage —beginning with government and politicians‑have become extraordinarily sophisticated about the imperatives that drive journalism. Consequently, events are planned and public policy decisions are made merely to play well on TV and in the press. In one sense this development simply represents democracy at work in an era of immediacy. The need for consent of the governed, after all, should put a burden on public officials to try to determine how people will respond to what government has done or is planning to do in their name and then to change course, if necessary, to achieve support. The problem is not the immediacy or the continuous seeking of consent. The problem is the means, which have placed an unhealthy emphasis on appearances.
This is not a new phenomenon. Daniel Boorstin caught the leading edge of it with his 1961 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo‑Events in America. But the intervening years have seen politicians take Boorstin's complaint as an instruction manual; what he decried has become the very basis of American political life.
The White House is an extreme but useful example of what has happened to the process of decision‑making as the day‑to‑day grooming of public image has grown in importance. Michael Kelly has described in the New York Times the extent to which image has become a political creed:
In this new faith, it has come to be held that what sort of person a politician actually is and what he actually does are not important. What is important is the perceived image of what he is and what he does. Politics is not about objective reality, but virtual reality... It exists for only the fleeting historical moment, in a magical movie of sorts....
By the time Bill Clinton was elected the 42d President of the United States the culture of Washington (and therefore of governance, and politics) had become dominated by people professionally involved in creating the public images of elected officials. They hold various jobs — they are pollsters, news‑media consultants, campaign strategists, advertising producers, political scientists, reporters, columnists, commentators — but the making of the movie is their shared concern. They are parts of a product‑based cultural whole, just like the citizens of Beverly Hills. Some are actors, some are directors, some are scriptwriters and some are critics, but they are all in the same line of work and life. They go to the same parties, send their children to the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods. They interview each other, argue with each other, sleep with each other, marry each other, live and die by each other's judgment. They joust and josh on television together explaining Washington to conventions of doctors and lawyers and corporate executives.
Not surprisingly, they tend to believe the same things at the same time. They believe in polls. They believe in television; they believe in talk; they believe, most profoundly, in talk television. They believe in irony. They believe that nothing a politician does in public can be taken at face value, but that everything he does is a metaphor for something he is hiding. They believe in the extraordinary! disastrous! magnificent! scandalous! truth of whatever it is they believe at the moment. Above all, they believe in the power of what they have created, in the subjectivity of reality and the reality of perceptions, in image.
Note Kelly's assertion that Washington correspondents share the political spin doctors' belief in the subjectivity of truth. Nothing could be more subversive of the journalist's traditional role, especially since this belief links up in an ominous way with radically skeptical social and intellectual currents in our culture (discussed in Chapter Four) which threaten the very idea of truth.
Kelly is certainly right that the media and politicians are in the game together. In the conventional understanding of journalism's truth discipline, the separation of observer and observed must be maintained. Even if a reporter does not pretend to be objective or neutral (and Kelly makes no such pretense in this piece), he still can insist upon operating at a distance from the event. But in the new order, the journalist may think of himself as being as much a part of the event as the President. He just has a smaller part, and so he has to work harder to be noticed.
The paradox is similar to what happens to journalists dealing with stories that involve their organizations and other direct elements of self‑interest. Reflexivity reigns. It becomes impossible to separate the dancer from the dance. The political writer finds himself in the odd position of analyzing how a particular message or action will play with the public when what he says affects how it plays. To complicate matters further, the central purpose of the message or action in the first place may have been to influence what political reporters say.
This may seem an enviable position for a journalist to be in, since the reporter cannot be all wrong: The very existence of the article he writes provides evidence of the political success or failure it describes. But at the same time, if he is at all thoughtful, he will recognize that whirl is king and he is dealing only with spin. He will yearn for some truth referent beyond the small, closed loop of which he is a part. (It is interesting that the "spin" metaphor is so close to the language of particle physics in which the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle arose.)
Dealing with this reflexivity is not simply an abstract problem for decision makers in news organizations. It has real and immediate bite. I recall the night the story broke that a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court had admitted smoking marijuana some years before when he was teaching at a prestigious law school. I got into a heated debate with colleagues, especially those in the Tribune's Washington Bureau, over my decision not to run the story on page one. I reasoned that it was not terribly significant that a person this man's age had smoked marijuana in the past, that the experience was common enough that it probably reflected no more about his character than having had an occasional drink during Prohibition would.
The counterargument was that the professor's admission was going to be political dynamite. Opponents of the President were on a tear after defeating the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork. They would be able to use this to make things embarrassing, perhaps even to stop this nomination, too. I argued that this might not be true if everyone treated the information as having little genuine significance to the merits of the appointment. As it turned out, the Tribune was alone among major papers in playing the story inside. And the nominee went on to his political doom. The information was dynamite, of course. But should it have been? And would it have been if the story had been generally played for its real rather than its symbolic importance? Since this episode we have elected a vice president who admitted having smoked marijuana and a president who deepened an image problem for himself, not by saying he had smoked, but by saying that he had not inhaled.)
The self‑imposed constraints journalists try to follow affect the general methods of politics. For example, if journalists were to universally disdain the use of unnamed sources, it might appreciably increase the power of the presidency. (It would also dramatically decrease the amount and timeliness of information available to the public, which may be a way of saying the same thing.) This is because the use of unnamed sources permits anyone with inside information to use it against the position of those in authority and take minimal risk of punishment in doing so. The leak is an equalizer.
THE PROBLEM OF AUTHORITY
This is one of authority's problems with journalism, but journalism also has problems with authority, even in a culture that offers remarkable leeway to free expression. One vexing aspect is how to deal with authoritative untruths.
Journalism's goal is to depict significant things learned about reality since the last report. When a scientific journal publishes a paper warning of a frightening new environmental health hazard, or the junior senator from Wisconsin says he has in his hand the names of fifty‑seven members of the Communist Party who work in the federal government, what should a disciplined newspaper report? The facile answer is that both are verbal events in the world and, as such, are true. But this narrow conception of truth disregards whether the authoritative assertion is accurate.
When the man next door says something to a reporter over the back fence and the reporter has serious reason to doubt it, he does not publish a word unless he concludes on independent scrutiny that the neighbor's assertion has met the general standard of proof. But when someone makes a statement from the position of the authority either of rank or of expertise, the situation becomes more difficult.
If the reporter has evidence refuting or clearly casting doubt on such an authoritative statement, the proper approach is to publish both assertion and rebuttal. It may even be appropriate for the journalist to present a factual judgment of his own. But often the contrary evidence does not emerge in time for simultaneous rebuttal. If the journalist still does not believe the statement, should he print it anyway? Or should he cast doubt upon it even without articulatable facts tending to refute it? Are there ever circumstances in which the journalist should withhold a statement by an authoritative figure simply because he disbelieves it?
For analytical purposes let's put the issue in its starkest form: Should a journalist ever decide not to report what the President has said because the reporter strongly believes, but has no way to prove, that the President is dead wrong? The same, of course, could be asked of statements by the Pope or a member of the Senate or House of Representatives, the chairman of General Motors, and so on all the way down to a policeman at a homicide scene. Any general approach to this question should deal with the difference between such cases.
At a minimum, the truth discipline requires that if a journalist publishes anything that might mislead, he must take steps to correct the misimpression. This basic rule helps parse out problems that will occur in an electronic, interactive newspaper, in which news space is virtually unconstrained and large amounts of textual material can be published (speeches, press releases, statements, and so forth) that bear on the news. The journalist presiding over such an environment has a responsibility to assure that the texts that he publishes are what they purport to be (that the XYZ Corporation and not an imposter posted the press release on fourth‑quarter earnings, for example). But beyond that, the journalist also should generally provide readers a context in which to understand these materials and, if he has reason to disbelieve what they say, the evidence supporting his disbelief. This is not to suggest that the electronic newspaper should exclude original source texts (which are valuable in giving readers a full picture and the means for making their own judgments). It only suggests that journalists have a responsibility to shed light on the ones that are dubious.
Getting back to the initial question, if the President says insurgents in the tiny country of Xenobia have systematically massacred hundreds of women and children and the journalist suspects this is bloody‑shirt propaganda, he has a duty to try to determine whether these massacres have taken place. But that takes time. What should he do the first night?
It seems clear to me that if the President made such a statement, a journalist must report it, even in the face of his own serious doubts about its veracity. He might write his report in such a way as to put the remarks in the context of the President's efforts to create the political conditions for military intervention in Xenobia, but he probably should not (in the absence of anything more than a hunch) transform his doubts into a clear statement of skepticism about the President's claim. (If a reasonable reader" would take the account as indicating the journalist's disbelief, the journalist has gone too far.)
The reason for permitting a journalist to violate the ordinary truth discipline and publish something he thinks is false is that the significance of the statement, accurate or inaccurate, far outweighs the risk that it will mislead people. It is impossible to avoid this kind of balancing test. Onto one side of the balance goes the significance of the utterance and the level of the public's interest in knowing of it (whether or not it is true); onto the other goes the likelihood that temporary belief by others in the statement will have irreversible consequences, the severity of those consequences, and the degree of doubt the journalist has concerning the truth of the statement.
In some circumstances perhaps even a president's statements might be withheld on the basis of no more than a hunch. But trying to imagine them forces one to such fantastic extremes that they do not represent any important qualification of the general rule in favor of straightforward publication. If on the first night of the Gulf War President Bush had stated that U.S. planes had destroyed the Iraqi Air Force on the ground or decimated the Republican Guard in their bunkers, I would have published it without hesitation, because all we had was a gut feeling that this assertion could not be so. The hunch was good enough for us to withhold rumors reported on TV, but it would not have justified withholding the President's words.
Few journalists would be tempted to withhold in these circumstances. But the itch of doubt is epidemic. Journalists today have persuaded themselves that they have a duty to show their universal skepticism of authority. In the White House pressroom it operates as a kind of collective gag reflex. And it becomes most acute when the political environment turns mean and personal, as it too often does these days. Thus we have to be very clear about the rare circumstances in which subjective disbelief of authoritative statements may be permitted to intrude into news reports.
In cases involving authority less exalted than the President, the statement itself is generally less newsworthy in its own right, so the threshold for withholding publication is lower. For example, a passing remark by a police officer at a murder scene that the husband of the dead woman must have killed her can easily go unpublished. The level of doubt is high, the consequences of publication severe to the person involved, and the significance of the statement (even the public's curiosity about it) low.
One unavoidable consequence of this analytic framework is that it permits reporters to treat differently cases that are alike from the point of view of the potential victims of the utterance. A false and disparaging statement by a highly placed public official in a supercharged political contest might be published while a similar statement in a more tranquil situation by someone of less prominence would not be. Likewise, an official pronouncement‑like a grand jury indictment or congressional report‑would be publishable even in the face of doubts about its validity. But so long as the journalist accepts the obligation to follow up on his doubts and correct misimpressions, the temporary inequity of this approach is acceptable, given the alternatives.
THE ADVERSARIAL APPROACH
Moral revulsion at publishing doubted information and the fear of being deceived by skilled image specialists have led some journalists to adopt an adversarial stance in their relationship with public officials and others they cover. The adversarial model comes from the conflict resolution methods of American law. The journalist postures himself as a relentless crossexaminer, hostile to every assertion by those he faces. He begins with the supposition that everyone in authority is a liar. Both his questioning and, inevitably, his reports may reflect this supposition. The adversarial journalist has no trouble figuring out what to do about a presidential statement he doubts. He simply lets his doubts show.
Though the law protects the journalist who strikes such a posture, neither the nature of the system of free expression nor the reasons underlying the Anglo‑American adversarial system of law should be taken as intellectual support for using the adversarial model in journalism. Both systems were designed to achieve some degree of truth from a competition among people with no necessary commitment to accuracy, but both recognize at least tacitly that there may be better ways of arriving at the truth.
The adversarial model in law puts a duty on the advocate to state the best possible case for his client. He has no general obligation to reveal the weaknesses in his position, to discover the falsehoods in his client's assertions or to put his opponent's case (though he is theoretically bound by minimal requirements that he reveal certain things that may conflict with his client's interest). After both advocates speak single‑mindedly on their clients' behalf in a highly stylized debate constrained by elaborate rules of evidence, a third party (judge or jury) decides what is the legal truth. Some rules of evidence frustrate the objective of reaching truth in the interest of advancing other objectives. For example, the rule against introduction of illegally seized evidence withholds facts from juries in order to deter wrongdoing by the police. The point of the adversarial process is in the first instance to resolve conflicts by providing the means of reaching some approximation of truth from participants who may dissemble or speak with less than perfect candor.
The free expression model embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has a similar rationale. The system of free expression permits almost any message to be sent, recognizing that some messages will gravely need refutation. But it assumes that this is best entrusted to a large, decentralized network of participants in the system. It does not impose a general, legally enforceable duty of truth because it does not trust any authority officially to establish the truth. It permits speakers to make false statements even when they know them to be false, but it does not encourage people to speak falsely. Nobody denies that the system would work more efficiently as a generator of truth if everyone felt an obligation to speak candidly despite their right to do otherwise. (The classic form taken by debates within the academic world, for example, assumes disagreement but presupposes a shared morality of truth‑telling. It recognizes that when everyone accepts this obligation the cause of knowledge is most efficiently advanced.) If nothing else, with the range of disagreement narrowed, the audience (as the ultimate finder of fact) can focus on the areas of genuine conflict.
The cause of knowledge is also better served by journalists who accept a duty to tell the truth rather than to take an adversarial posture toward those in authority. The adversarial model
encourages less than candor, which is why it is so subversive of good journalism. Furthermore, though journalists certainly participate in the marketplace of ideas, their role is not an advocate's. They review the debate and try to come to some form of judgment. They act as surrogates who help the public discover and weigh the evidence. Their role should be more like the judge's than the lawyer's, more like the scholar's than the partisan's.
Since objectivity and the adversarial model are inadequate descriptions of how journalists should do their duty to the truth, one might use a general standard of neutrality to describe the journalist's truth discipline. This accords with journalists' description of their duty to be "impartial" or to act "without fear or favor." As a description of the proper attitude in reporting a story, these oft‑used descriptions have utility. They describe an aspiration, of course, an unattainable standard of perfection. Only an amnesiac could approach anything in a state of pure neutrality. But, even recognizing this, journalists can discipline themselves to correct against bias and deal with each new situation with an open mind.
What about situations that are not entirely new? Or situations in which a study of history provides some guidance? Preconception, after all, can be another word for experience or even wisdom. If editors had no preconceptions about the nature of warfare, they might have accepted early reports from the Persian Gulf about the level of destruction achieved by the allies' first air strikes. If they had relied on these preconceptions a little more, they might have been warier about the military's reports of how flawlessly "smart weapons" performed.
Some years before the Gulf War, not long after the bombing of Muammar al‑Khadafy's headquarters in Tripoli, a senior defense official visited the Tribune editorial board. I asked him what he thought when he heard the Secretary of Defense say the night of the attack that since the bombs were precision-guided weapons he found it inconceivable that, despite reports of damage to the French Embassy, any had gone off track. The Pentagon official, a combat veteran, replied something like this: "Each aircraft carried two young men in their twenties who flew half a day in uncomfortable seats to reach the Libyan coast. At that point they ran into heavy flak. it flew up at their aircraft from all directions, trying to kill them. They dropped down to low altitude and flew at a high rate of speed toward the target, then turned the plane upside down to make the final run. If they dropped a bomb one second early or late it would land miles off target. No, I did not think that missing was inconceivable."
His was a preconception, a very knowledgeable one.
The attitude of neutrality in reporting a story has to be tempered by experience, always recognizing that experience in turn must be tempered by the new insights provided through the gateway of an open mind. But that is just common sense. So why not simply declare a general standard of neutrality? The difficulty comes when neutrality is meant not only to describe a state of mind for reporting a story but also the way the story should be told.
Journalists often hear complaints that a news story showed bias because it openly stated the reporter's conclusions or because it had a clear point of view. This complaint assumes that neutral presentation of information is always a journalistic virtue. Often the people who make these arguments, sometimes with great intensity, have a strong point of view of their own. In fact, hearing enough complaints of this sort tempts an editor to treat them all as hopelessly partisan. What such people want is not the journalist's neutrality but his agreement. Still, an honest evaluation of the work that appears in newspapers today reveals that most of it would not begin to satisfy any meaningful standard of neutrality of expression.
Political writers regularly evaluate the efficacy of statements by politicians and government officials. Stories about the economy commonly put changes in the statistical indicators into perspective (saying that a drop in unemployment does not mean what it appears to mean, for example) even when economists show no unanimity on the point. Reports of foreign affairs include critical discussions of the government's policy or lack of one. Local news articles contrast antiseptic official statements with gritty recitations of the reality of the streets. Business writers look at companies' activities in light of theories of management that are by no means universally accepted. When great events occur‑whether wars or disasters or triumphs such as the breaching of the Berlin Wall‑news organizations try to write directly about the larger historical meanings and even to imagine the probable consequences some years down the line, again in circumstances in which there is no consensus among knowledgeable observers. Either journalism is regularly disregarding a basic discipline or else neutrality of expression should not be the standard.
There are many reasons to abandon the pretense: journalism needs to help people understand increasingly complex issues that affect their political and social decisions, and this is impossible to do without making judgments of fact and value. People don't usually find perfectly neutral accounts interesting, because bare recitation of fact can be tedious and leaves too much unresolved. Busy people expect their newspapers to do much of the analytic work for them. Neutral writing may actually undermine the relationship between the newspaper and its community by making it difficult for people to find a personality in the paper, a unique voice to which they can relate.
The judicial analogy is far from perfect, but it offers a useful place to begin. Though we expect judges to be impartial and unbiased and to act without preconception about the case before them, we do not expect them to end in a state of indecision about the truth and its implications or to leave readers of their work in a state of confusion about what they have decided. The best judges recognize the limits of their knowledge and their duty to act in the face of factual uncertainty in accord with clear rules setting forth the burden of proof and other tie‑deciders. They do make use of their experience‑both as human beings and as lawyers‑to try to make judgments that have some logical coherence with other judgments they have made. But they do not let partisanship or ideology (which could be thought of as an extreme case of coherence) prevent them from seeing the exception that might challenge the structure they helped to build. And when they write, they do not shy away from making judgments about the weight of evidence and logic. We only expect that they give due account of the advocates' positions and then reflect their own true reasoning so that it might be evaluated by others. They aim to be neutral in their inquiry but not in the expression of their findings.
INTELLECTUAL HONESTY AND THE GOLDEN RULE
The judicial analogy suggests a whole set of virtues — open-mindedness, impartiality, the duty to be candid about one's reasoning and about what one knows and does not know, the responsibility to put as forcefully as possible the positions of those with whom one disagrees. These virtues all come together in the concept of intellectual honesty, which links the truth discipline in journalism with the highest standards in scientific and academic debate. It is as good a statement of aspiration as any I can think of for journalists.
Intellectual honesty means that in presenting a news report a journalist may draw certain conclusions and make certain predictions about the consequences of a particular event, but it also imposes a duty to do justice to the areas of legitimate debate. This is what separates news from polemical writing. The former must attempt to represent a matter of public concern in its fullness. A polemic aims to persuade the audience that one view of the matter is undoubtedly correct.
The Golden Rule has endured through the centuries as an ethical proposition of enormous force because it offers a subjective method for determining the moral direction one's behavior should take. it asks that an individual treat others the way he would like to be treated, to turn the tables, to empathize. This is a useful way to look at the requirement of intellectual honesty. In reporting a matter of legitimate debate (How big should the Pentagon budget be? Did Alderman X take a bribe?), the journalist will surely reach some conclusions. And, with some constraints described later, he should feel free to share his conclusions with his readers. But in doing so, the Golden Rule suggests that the reporter must try to put the case against his conclusions as forcefully as he would want an opponent to put the reporter's own arguments.
This, like many moral propositions, sets an extraordinarily high aspiration. If you deeply believe your own position, you will find it very difficult to express the opposite point of view with the same enthusiasm and force. But the Golden Rule is a corrective; it points the right direction. And, with discipline, it is not too much to expect reporters (freed of the impossible requirement of objectivity and the nonfunctional requirement of neutral expression) to play square with others' arguments, stating them honestly and presenting the facts and logic supporting them. The Golden Rule is a perfectionist goal, toward which to stumble in our imperfect, human way.
Even the unalloyed gold standard does not require a journalist to report every view of a subject, only those that could be held by informed, reasonable people. Of course, a journalist's bias may unduly restrict what he considers the range of reasonable, informed opinion. And illegitimate claims may need to be reported as important facts in their own right‑such as the racist, antisemitic, and xenophobic views that mar the political landscape from time to time. A reporter also needs to operate within the constraints of time, space, and reader attention span that limit everything a newspaper does. But these must not become excuses for lapsing into the one‑sided, polemical approach in the news columns. A journalist's reputation should turn in large part upon the quality of his judgment in wisely sorting through these difficult issues so as to produce work of genuine intellectual integrity.
Too much of what appears in newspapers today fails to live up to the Golden Rule. Once journalists recognized the philosophical impossibility of objectivity and the rhetorical weakness of neutral expression, many of them threw off all traditional restraints against asserting opinion in news reports. Today many TV correspondents' stand‑ups end with a little homily fit to conclude one of Aesop's fables. You can find plenty of this in the newspapers, too, though there the moral of the story usually comes at the beginning. In both media too often arguments that would tend to undermine the journalist's judgments either remain unreported or else are put forth as straw men that the reporter easily knocks down. There are a hundred ways to do this. Common to all is the adversarial unwillingness to permit the audience to make its own assessment of the contrary position without the journalist's heavy‑handed guidance.
Journalists often use the concept of fairness to describe their discipline. Unfortunately, the idea of fairness has a rich philosophical history. This gives it implications that may be inimical to the truth discipline. Even as journalistic cliché, the idea of fairness leads in odd directions.
"Journalism," one saying goes, "should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Taken loosely as a call for journalists to concern themselves with the suffering of the weakest members of society and to have the courage to tell unpleasant truths about the powerful, the statement makes sense. But it also can be an invitation to bias, and journalists too often accept the call. Should journalists always afflict the comfortable, even when the comfortable are doing no harm? Should they afflict them simply because of their comfort? And what about the afflicted? What if telling the truth to and about them would cause them discomfort? Should the truth be shaded or withheld in order to give them comfort instead? What if truth were the painful antidote that in the long run would cure the affliction?
Any deep consideration of the idea of fairness leads eventually to questions of distributive justice of the very sort raised by these tidings of comfort and affliction. In its simplest terms, the issue is whether fairness means letting everyone compete on the same terms, regardless of the advantages and disadvantages they bring to the competition, or whether fairness requires that players carry a handicap. Is it fair to say that a poor child from the urban projects and the child of wealth and privilege should be judged by the same standard when evaluating them for admission to college? What about when trying to understand the moral quality of their behavior?
John Rawls's Theory of Justice 16 provides an excellent contemporary example of the idea of distributive justice. Rawls has the courage to face the whole range of social advantages and disadvantages, as well as natural abilities and disabilities (with which one may be born and for which one thus may be said to have no personal responsibility)‑not only physical strength and intellectual acumen, but also creativity, ambition and indolence, beauty and ugliness. He boldly calls on people's sense of distributive fairness to compensate for them, as if to repair God's injustice. This leads him a long way from the idea of fairness as equality of opportunity.
What might fairness in its Rawlsian, distributive sense mean in journalism? Some participants in the public debate come better equipped for it than others. Distributive fairness would have to involve some form of compensation by the journalist for this disparity. He might, for example, call all close factual issues for the weaker party or shade the way he put both sides' arguments in order to give the weaker side a chance of persuading the audience. In more extreme cases, he might have to withhold information helpful to the advantaged side in order to keep the game even. All of these compensatory strategies sharply conflict with a journalist's primary duty of simple candor, and this is why fairness is a poor choice of words to describe a journalist's discipline.
The ideal of intellectual honesty, tested by the Golden Rule, offers a much surer guide. But this requires a degree of self‑restraint that is not natural in people who become immersed in a subject and develop strong feelings about it. The Golden Rule must be taught, and that has been difficult in journalism because of the lack of clarity and consensus about just what the proper discipline should be.
One problem has been the shift in weight between fact and value in news reports. No journalist I know would favor lying to give the weaker party a more even chance of prevailing in the debate. Far more likely would a journalist shade his report of a valuative debate to favor an individual suffering under a disadvantage. Somebody, he might say, has to speak up for the flood victims, or the physically handicapped, or the urban underclass, or the Vietnam veteran, or the AIDS victim. And he might even overlook some strong counterarguments on the assumption that the secure, well‑financed majority interests can look out for their side of the argument very well by themselves, thank you very much. This helps account, I think, for the populist streak in American journalism as well as for journalists' reputation for being more liberal than their audience. It also may be one reason journalists have seemed to many people to be getting more liberal over time. As self‑restraint against expressing opinion in news reports has fallen, the compensatory impulse becomes more marked.
It is not always easy to distinguish between fact and value, of course. In pure narrative, value is expressed solely through the selection of fact. And it is easy, once one starts handicapping the argument, to start calling more and more disputes for the supposed underdog. Consider the balance of environmental reporting over the past few decades. Once journalists became persuaded that powerful interests were causing danger and using their strength to cover it up, the tilt set in. It was not easy to learn from news reports about the evidence suggesting that emissions from tall smokestacks do not cause widespread acid rain damage to forests or that Agent Orange's dioxin does not cause severe health problems in human beings or that the white spotted owl seems to be living happily in unendangered numbers in non‑old growth forests.
Better than attempting to distinguish between fact and value and applying different standards to each, the discipline of intellectual honesty applies the same rule across all domains. And with the help of the Golden Rule it provides appropriate guidance and restraint over the expression of opinion in news stories without having to forbid the practice outright.
THE LIMIT OF OPINION
But this is not the end of the requirements of journalism's basic disciplines. Beyond intellectual honesty, journalists reporting the news need to restrain the expression of their opinions, showing modesty in their judgments about facts and always withholding ultimate judgment on matters of value. A political riter should not include in his report on a presidential campaign his view about whom people should vote for. Nor should he write his story in a way that would lead a reasonable reader to infer his preference. A reporter covering a trial should not reveal his conclusions about who is lying or whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. In an article about the abortion controversy, the writer should not come out for or against Roe v. Wade.
This departs from the judicial analogy and imposes a tighter constraint on journalists. But the stricter approach is necessary in order to uphold the traditional distinction between news reporting and editorializing. (Editorials are polemical. They make their opinion about ultimate issues plain. And they need not recite all contrary arguments, though taking them into account makes for more persuasive editorials.) Preserving this distinction makes good sense for a number of reasons. People have grown used to it. Withholding ultimate judgment communicates the reporter's commitment to neutrality in his approach to reporting a story even as he departs from strict neutrality of expression. (it is hard to read the comments of an explicit supporter of a candidate and avoid the thought that he will not give the candidate's opponent an even break.) Modesty of opinion and holding back ultimate judgments of value produce a report that invites the audience to weigh information for itself and at the same time offer the audience some help in getting through the ambiguities and complexities. These disciplines make it easier for journalists to put all reasonable positions forcefully. (It is one thing to give all arguments their due when one does not choose between them explicitly. It is another to take an ultimate position and then have to give everyone the benefit of the Golden Rule.) Finally, withholding ultimate judgments makes pluralism in the reporting staff easier to manage.
It is hard enough under the discipline of modesty of opinion to permit writers latitude and still produce a newspaper with a sense of coherence. This would be virtually impossible if reporters were freed to express ultimate judgments. To make all the judgments in the paper consistent, editors and publishers would have to impose a political view, story by story, or else choose only those reporters whose views were essentially consistent with the paper's editorial positions. The result would be a coherent publication, on the model of the European press, but not one that reflects a large, geographic community the way American audiences have come to expect their newspapers to do.
To illustrate the way intellectual honesty and withholding ultimate judgment work, contrast Friendly Fire with another book‑length report, America: What Went Wrong? by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In Friendly Fire the writer had an unmistakable point of view about the factual truth of the events he described and about their deeper meaning. He presented his efforts to come to some conclusion in a way that made his neutrality in approaching the story apparent, even when he became involved in the action. And he scrupulously permitted everyone in the story to have his say. There was never a sense that he had left an inconvenient argument out or shaded it in order to make it weaker. A compellingly readable piece of work, Friendly Fire went from magazine article to book to made‑for‑TV movie, helping those who came into contact with it to understand what the Vietnam War had done to us.
America: What Went Wrong? also created quite a stir. Readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer responded with an intensity rare in the newspaper business when it was published in 19 9 1 during the recession that ended the Bush presidency. The articles and then the book touched something in the audience so powerfully that some journalists began talking about it as a model for how the news could be made relevant. It is not a model that fits with the disciplines for reporting I have been describing.
Barlett and Steele begin with this premise:
You might think of what is happening in the economy‑and thereby to you and your family‑in terms of a professional hockey game, a sport renowned for its physical violence. Imagine how the game would be played if the old rules were repealed, if the referees were' removed.
That, in essence, is what is happening to the American economy. Someone changed the rules. And there is no referee. Which means there is no one looking after the interests of the middle class.
They are the forgotten Americans.
From that point on the report marches steadily along, marshaling evidence and emotional anecdotes to drive home the message that the Reagan‑Bush years in America laid waste to ordinary, middle‑class America. The subjects include health care, pensions, corporate raiding, bankruptcy, foreign competition, lobbying. In each area the approach is the same. Here is just one example.
Barlett and Steele take the position that deregulation for the American taxpayer and consumer has meant "fewer airlines and higher air fares, more unsafe trucks on the highways, and more of your tax money diverted to pay for the savings and loan debacle." 19 They assert that today there is less competition in the airline industry than before regulation but never mention that airlines now can compete on price and do so with a vengeance. Nor do they report that economists' predictions that deregulation would mean lower prices and better service have proven correct in almost all industries where they have been tested .20
Competition did cause the shakeout in the airline industry that Barlett and Steele decry, complaining that small towns once served by airlines have lost service because of deregulation, but they do not report that under regulation the many consumers traveling on the higher volume routes had to subsidize the few flying from small towns. And on and on. Barlett and Steele give no quarter to arguments against their position.
My point is not that the Inquirer reporters' work was unworthy. America: What Went Wrong? is powerful polemical writing that understands its audience and speaks in a populist voice to the audience's deepest emotions. But it does not live up to the discipline of intellectual honesty in that it does not give voice to contrary facts and arguments. Nor does it withhold ultimate judgments. It begins and ends with them. To any moderately skeptical reader this approach leaves the distinct impression that the marshaling of evidence followed the conviction rather than the conviction arising from the proof. The lesson of America: What Went Wrong? is this: As newspapers encourage more analysis and conclusion‑drawing, even some of the best reporters at the best newspapers can lose track of the line between news and polemics.
DEGREES OF PROOF
It is not a simple matter to specify how much evidence a journalist should have before he publishes an assertion of fact. Certainty is generally self‑deception. Even the testimony of one's own senses can mislead, as anyone who has watched instant replays in sports can verify. Most of the time, journalists do not have firsthand knowledge of the facts they report. They must rely on others to tell them, others with motives‑sometimes pathological ones‑for not telling the truth.
Nearly every journalist has at one time or another faced a consummate liar and taken what he said to be true. Likewise, nearly every journalist has experienced the education in skepticism that comes from being deceived by the government that acts in his and his readers' names.
Still, the basis of news reporting is a kind of trust. It begins with the trust between a journalist and his sources of information and from there builds to the trust he wants to establish with his audience. No rule of thumb can describe the complex factors that go into a judgment of trust. But it is worth singling out a few of them to establish a balancing test that can form a basis for evaluating issues of journalistic proof.
Experience is the most useful indicator; a source (either human or institutional) who has been regularly right in the past generally deserves to be believed, unless there are specific reasons not to. Experience with particular kinds of situations also plays a role. If someone tells you that a man got injured by falling down to the ground, there is no particular reason on the face of it to doubt the account. But if he tells you the man hurt himself falling up to the ceiling, it is probably worth doing some more checking.
There is a fine line, of course, between experience and closed‑mindedness. The unprecedented event is more likely to be news than the commonplace, and conventional wisdom is often wrong. So a good journalist must not discount everything that conflicts with what he has previously known. Nonetheless, experience can send up a warning, that little nervous feeling in the pit of the stomach that says, "Watch out." Every careful journalist always heeds that warning.
Verifiability helps establish credibility. Reports that anyone might check against public sources deserve more trust than accounts that nobody accessible to the journalist other than the source could refute. Checking against public sources, of course, always makes sense when there is reason to doubt. But it is not always necessary For example, when a reputable economist recites the unemployment rates for the last twelve months in the course of making an argument about the prospects for a recession, a time‑pressed reporter ordinarily feels comfortable relying on them.
The advantage of using public record materials as authenticators of information is that their wide and ready availability permits a record over time to be corrected (which is another reason newspapers as an important part of this public record need to be aggressive about correcting their errors).
In the absence of public records, private documents should generally be given more weight than oral accounts. Though documents can be forged, the embodiment of information in this form creates more ways to discover a lie. As more and more communication takes place electronically, sophistication in determining authenticity needs to grow apace or else we will find ourselves in a state of increased uncertainty as a result of the change. For example, it is possible now to trick up moving video images to insert or remove people or objects in a way the eye would never notice. Now more than before, documentary evidence is highly persuasive but inconclusive.
When a journalist finds no public record or documentary evidence to support an assertion, he must decide whether he can rely on human sources alone. It is not rare that he decides to do so. There is no rule that can tell him when to do it and when not to. Credibility turns on a subtle blend of factors that includes demeanor and even hunch, which is why law gives the decision of judges and juries about witnesses' credibility such enormous weight on appeal. Nonetheless, there are a few obvious guides.
Journalists often say they do not care about the motives of those who give them information. By this they usually mean they are uninterested in considering whose cause they promote by disseminating accurate, significant information. But the statement is misleading, because journalists must take motive into account in weighing what sources tell them. Motive gives a clue to the source's biases and reasons for lying or telling the truth only selectively. The trouble is, news sources always have motives, even when they are passing on true information. Most leakers do not leak on themselves.
Corroboration by other sources can be helpful. The Washington Post "two-source" practice during the Watergate investigations reflects this. Dealing almost entirely with anonymous sources on that story~ Post editors asked reporters to confirm and reconfirm information through more than one source when none could be put on the record. I don't know how such a practice would protect against being deceived by a group of willful people acting in concert, though in the Post's extraordinary Watergate investigation it generally worked. Though corroboration is helpful, when all sources are anonymous, the level of uncertainty in many instances is still too high.
Better to require attribution to a source willing to be identified by name. At least others will be able to assess the credibility of the source, and if it later turns out that he lied, he will have to face the consequences, which tends to deter lying in the first place.
Other reasons not to rely on anonymous sources will be discussed in a later chapter. But restrictions by news organizations upon their use always raise the issue of whether the Watergate scandal would have gone unrevealed under such rules. Almost any self‑restraint on the part of journalists might make it impossible in a particular instance to get or publish valuable information, but the only way around that is to take the position (which one sometimes hears when journalists get into swashbuckling postures in public forums) that any means of getting and publishing a fact is justified. Short of that, it is possible to recognize that certain kinds of stories require less restrictive rules than others. This leads to a difficult balancing test in which journalists must weigh the magnitude of the consequences of publishing along with the level of confidence in the accuracy of the information and the effect publication will have on particular individuals, especially those who may be harmed.
When a report would have the effect of disparaging an identified or identifiable private individual unconnected with government or public affairs, the case is strong for requiring a very high degree of proof and forbidding the use of anonymous sources. The reporting of private activities, while important, is not as central to the role of the press as the reporting of government. Private individuals often have less protection against unfair attack and less ability to fight back. But when the report is about government and politics and does not single out any individual, anonymity is much more tolerable. (For example, the articles that so often appear quoting "senior government officials" on cabinet secretaries' airplanes during overseas missions generally do more good in letting the public in on the government line than harm in hiding the identity of the speaker, usually the cabinet secretary himself.)
Likewise, when the potential harm from not publishing vastly exceeds the harm that might occur if the information published turns out to be in error, there may be reasons for accepting the accounts of anonymous individuals or other sources of information that would not pass muster in less grave circumstances. Perhaps this analysis would have justified the use of sources in the Watergate reports, though that is still worth debating.
The social gravity factored into this balancing test cannot be measured on a scientific scale. Journalists will tend routinely to overestimate it and accept inadequate evidence in the excitement and immediacy of the pursuit of a fascinating story. So newspapers should establish a strict rule against publication of disparaging information about individuals based solely on anonymous sources. They may then permit rare exceptions to be made only by decision at the highest level of the news organization. This does not guarantee wisdom; it only reduces the number of occasions for error, since the cumbersome exception process dissuades reporters from trying and gives them an incentive to get proof that meets the higher standard. (In my experience reporters usually come up with attributable proof when they cannot get the story into the newspaper any other way. This always produces a better story, because it allows the reader to evaluate the sources.) When newspapers do permit attribution to anonymous sources, they should attempt to provide the reader as much information about the sources as they can. it helps to be told that a piece of information came from a CIA official rather than from a "knowledgeable source."
The question of how and when one knows enough to publish has infinite variations. It produces some intriguing newsroom debates. But it is time for journalists to codify their standards in explicit guidelines.