In a television news piece, the interviewee said: “We’ve lost three trillion dollars to tax evasion in the past 10 years.”
Is that true? The reporter did not ask how that number was derived.
There is an old story about a robbery in town. The local newspaper noted that police believed the money and the mayor left together on the 10:05 Thursday night. Often, in the three-plus decades I have been a journalist, I have felt a need to remind a reporter to ask why police “believed” that.
In a discussion with some colleagues recently, the question came up about reporters who don’t ask enough questions. I mentioned that during a couple year stint as an editor, I had a sign above my desk: “There’s a fine line between the facts and the truth. A journalist’s job is to learn the former in order to discern the latter.”
One person thought there was a problem with me projecting my truth on a story. Au contraire! In fact, occasionally, I would have to explain that the rule did not mean my truth was better than anyone else’s, but that as a reporter, I am to gather as many facts as possible, note the facts I could not gather, and draw a picture as completely as possible so that some form for truth, rather than simply a listing of facts, may be discerned by my readers.
For instance, the rush to Iraq may not have been slowed by major-organization reporters asking more questions, or pundits doing more than merely commenting on how fired up Americans were, but columnists, especially on small papers, often were forbidden to voice in print that maybe war in Iraq was ill-advised. That, I contend, was a disservice to those of us who had to back, or not, sending our kids off to war.
FACT: 3,000 people were killed on 9/11. FACT: The attackers were, apparently, Muslim. FACT: 535 congress people were ready to follow their constituents to war. There, for the most part, the questions stopped.
Not until we were deeply invested , and citizens back home began to question the deaths of their sons and daughters in Iraq, did mainstream media begin to seriously question why we were there in the first place.
In a recent “Hawaii 5-0” episode, the story revolved around a man who been convicted of one murder, and by inference, a string of others. It turned out – police, news reports and a jury notwithstanding – he hadn’t killed any of the victims, but had served many years of a life sentence.
In the county where I live, a man was sentenced to life for a murder that DNA, 15 years later, proved he did not commit. In that case, the question – whose DNA was it – was prohibited from the trial.
Often, the truth is we don’t know the truth. But I believe our readers look for us to try to find it and lay it out for them. Merely quoting the county commissioner, district attorney, or president, and leaving the readers to “make up their own mind” is a disservice to them and our craft.
If a politician makes a false statement, we have a responsibility to check it, find the facts and present them. FACT: Rep. Joe Schmuckatelli said refineries were being closed down by EPA regulations. TRUTH: The lawmaker neglected to mention refinery owners saying with oil prices going up and demand for gasoline in decline, they can’t make a profit.
As for the difference between reporters and columnists? Columnists are reporters, with the added privilege of trying to interpret or comment on the facts, sometimes giving readers another way to look at the subject at hand.
My bias may be reflected in my interpretation, but I am not allowed to create the facts on which I comment. And I invite my readers to disagree with the version of truth I represent. I love good conversation, and sometimes my mind can be changed.
At the place I most recently worked, I had another short note taped over my desk. “You didn’t ask,” it reminded me.
You don’t get answers if you don’t ask questions. Ask enough questions, and everyone gets a better shot at the truth..
Some day, historians will take all of what we journalists – reporters and columnists – record, and discern a finer truth about our lives and times. I would like to think my analysis, though it may one day be proved in error, help some future researcher discern a fuller truth.
Photo by ClintJCL
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