The NYT wants to know: should newspapers point out lies?

Can they really be asking this question? Indeed they can.

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

Apparently if they did this they would qualify as ‘truth vigilantes’. I would have used the word ‘reporters’.

(Thanks, Mr Jender. And thanks also for the many expletives with which you alerted me to the story.)

19 thoughts on “The NYT wants to know: should newspapers point out lies?

  1. The NYT also uses strange examples. E.g. about Romney’s speeches that claim that “President Obama apologizes for America”: I don’t expect the NYT to include the proposed paragraph, but I expect them to not print this quote without asking Mr Romney which speech he meant.

  2. Heck yes!!! We need real reporters out there, dammit! Real investigative reporters, if that is what they now are called, rather than spinners and shills for one side or the other. We need the straight scoop – reality – not an alternate reality created by someone with an agenda to sell.

  3. Let’s not blur the distinction between verifying a falsifiable statement and “pointing out a lie”. While I have limited confidence (partly for reasons given below) in a NYT reporter’s ability to correctly, competently and neutrally implement the proposed policy, I have even less confidence in his or her ability to discern between lies and errors.

    But here is the real difficulty. The temptation for newspaper reporters and editors to let opinion journalism creep into straight news reporting is already very great and not uniformly resisted on the best of days, and the NYT is no exception. I don’t see how the proposed change in newswriting approach can avoid exacerbating this problem (to the extent one sees the existing reality as a problem, that is; it’s more more or less accepted in some countries, but in the US the media still dare not speak its name for the most part).

    Take the example given in the NYT column, just for illustrative purposes (although one can easily imagine more problematic scenarios that would inevitably arise): if Mitt Romney says that President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America”, the NYT reporter writing about it would add a paragraph along the following lines:

    ““The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

    [Note that I am taking this all at face value for the sake of argument, I have no idea what Mitt Romney has said or what he meant about this, or what words the president may have used, and don’t intend to discuss the particular claim.]

    Let’s imagine the NYT were actually to print these two extra sentences. The first sentence (assuming it’s true) has virtually no probative value against Romney’s statement. The second sentence is almost certainly an opinion that the reporter has formed (hopefully not on the basis of the first finding), and whatever its merits, it belongs on the opinion page, ideally fleshed out with an argument, a consideration of counterarguments, and perhaps some basic information on the opinionator’s identity and credentials.

    The proposed policy would be an open invitation for reporters to further blur the lines between opinion journalism and news reporting. The allure of being able to present opinion as authoritative, objective fact (which is one of the favorite conceits of the news business to begin with) makes it all the more likely that this proposal would devolve into a matter of reporters adding their two cents about controversial claims with which they disagree, or on matters which they are probably not qualified to challenge authoritatively – not to mention the inevitable risk of selection bias. One already sees this happening in the “fact-checking” columns that a number of newspapers have established in recent years. But at least there it can be isolated from the reporting of individual stories.

  4. Nemo, I don’t think I agree at all. It seems to me that you have added two particularly bad sentences under the guise of ‘fact-checking’, but that’s no mark against including fact-checking in stories.

    If a reporter is not competent to judge whether something the President said is an apology, then the reporter could ask an expert. That’s true of *all* fact-checking, by the way. The reporter could then write, “… University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman said that a search of Obama’s speeches yielded no examples of apologizing for America.”

    Was your point that reporters are more likely to do bad fact-checking, as illustrated by your two sentences, than good fact-checking? Or do you think there’s also something wrong with my alternative?

  5. Jamie, I didn’t invent those two bad sentences; I was quoting from the example that the NYT public editor came up with to illustrate the proposed policy. That doesn’t mean, of course, that if the policy were implemented the newspaper’s reporters couldn’t do better than that, but I do think that at the very least it reinforces the notion that they wouldn’t reliably avoid the kinds of problems it illustrates.

    I’m not sure that your proposed solution really fixes all the problems. I think if you regularly read the dedicated fact-checking columns that a number of newspapers now run, you will see that that reporters’ inability to adequately fact-check certain matters is not the sole problem. There’s also their apparent inability to distinguish reliably between the kinds of things they are qualified to fact-check and the kinds of things they aren’t, or sometimes even between the kinds of things that are susceptible to fruitful fact-checking to begin with from those that are not (e.g. many matters that rest on subjective opinion).

    When the NYT is reporting in a news story on something Mitt Romney (to use their example) says, I expect them to fact-check that Romney said what the NYT is saying he said, of course. If they want to weigh in on the meaning, substance or merits of what he said, as a rule (with extremely narrow exceptions, if any) they should probably do so on the op-ed pages.

    Now, what I do like about your alternative is that it simply reports another fact that the NYT can ably verify – in this case, the fact that the linguist has said what the paper says the linguist said – without the news article itself explicitly adopting the position that Romney opinion is wrong and that the linguist’s opinion is correct.

    But problems remain. Should the reporter also determine whether there are other linguists who take a different view from the first linguist (and if I know linguists, the answer will be yes), and cite one of them too? Then we’re into a dueling-experts situation, the reporting of which perhaps doesn’t impart to the reader much more than the banal fact that a politician said something controversial and people disagree over it. Meanwhile, the news article will have wandered far off track from whatever event it was reporting. (Although I could see an argument for devoting a separate piece to the substance of the controversy, which would probably be necessary to do it justice anyway.)

    Also, we’d still be stuck with the problem of selection bias.

    Frankly, part of me *would* like to see more of this kind of fact-checking in print. But I recognize that any proposal that would further tax the already-overstrained ability of people in the news business [1] to refrain from injecting their own opinions into straight news reporting, and [2] to distinguish their own opinions from objective fact, already has two strikes against it.

  6. 1. I’m struck by the fact that the idea of truth in reporting is quite general, but the examples are clustered around politicians and perhaps a few others (I have not fact checked that). There are lots of things in newspapers which we don’t seem to think particularly worth fact checking, and when the facts are important – court cases, reports of accidents, etc – reporters make abundant use of words like “alleges.” Don’t they do that in political reporting, reporting of important commercial supposed events, etc? I think in fact they don’t regularly. Should they?

    2. I share Nemo’s worry about editorializing in the news columns. There are all sorts of ways overt fact checking can import biases, but just the decision of whether something needs checking may involve a lot of bias. I’d bet, for example, that female politicians and male African American politicians would receive more “credibility reports,” thus implying that what they say is more questionable. Disabled speakers might receive a lot more, etc.

    3. How effective would fact checking be of the sort envisaged? It’s one thing to put an “alleges” in front of a sentence, which certainly seems to me at least to reduce its power, and another to put stuff at the end of an article. Many, many people do not read the whole article – this is a truism in journalism, I believe. In addition, it is extremely hard to get something unsaid once it is said. That’s why a standard advice is that in combatting rumors, one should NOT repeat them. A “Romney’s claim that Obama apologies for the country does not check out” might simply reinforce the belief in question. I’m making here an empirical claim that has a lot of support, I think.

  7. Anne, well put. I’d like to make an observation about your interesting first point. Court cases and related situations are a tricky one. The press does have some truth-seeking role there (and, for example, press reporting of facts that constitute, or possibly constitute, illegal conduct on someone’s part have led to many court cases that benefited the public interest in justice). However, the press role is somewhat circumscribed by the fact that society has for various reasons, in this particular context, granted a quasi-monopoly on the fact-checking function to the judicial system. And there’s a certain perpetual tension there. It’s the source, I think, of some of the journalistic conventions concerning reporting of court cases, police investigations, etc. There is a desire to avoid “trial in the press”, at least beyond a certain point. When the press abandons its (usually, mostly) circumspect habits with respect to reporting of criminal allegations and such, it increases the risk of things like tainting of jury pools and makes it more difficult for the judicial system to carry out its own truth-seeking function which includes both convicting the guilty and vindicating the innocent. Very interesting and perceptive questions you raise, as usual.

  8. Jender, that article raises a number of good points. It says: “However, it isn’t merely that all of this is just bad or sloppy journalistic behavior. It’s more directed, more purposeful than that: it all goes in one direction (bolstering official claims), all benefits one faction (those who wield power), and all has one outcome (amplifying elite assertions while shielding them from criticial scrutiny).” But I think the author misses the role that partisan politics (rather than just the politics of power and privilege) plays in all this. To the extent that the NYT and its journalistic and editorial corps is to the left of, or otherwise has reason to be ideologically opposed to, the government at a given time, its tendency is not to bolster official claims but to bolster the claims of the government’s critics. The people who think that the NYT went too easy on the Bush administration’s claims (in the author’s example) tend to be people who diverge even further from that administration’s politics than the NYT did. I’m gathering that the Salon author is one such person, and that that has something to do with why he sees this all working to the benefit of those in political power. Even if, as the author notes, no public editor (an ombudsman-type position) of the NYT has ever criticized the paper for excessive skepticism of government claims, plenty of other people have raised that criticism, or noted that different rules seem to apply depending on the politics of the government in question, or the specific claims in question. And as a previous NYT public editor wrote, “if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/opinion/the-public-editor-is-the-new-york-times-a-liberal-newspaper.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm) It will also, he could have added, guarantee that you get extra-special scrutiny and skepticism from fact-checking reporters.

  9. I can hardly think of any quotidian act that requires sharper critical thinking skills than taking in the news. Even though facts are not straightforward entities, and all reporting (and editing) presents only a version of the truth, not The Truth, it seems to me that a respect for veracity is the least we should expect from journalists. Consider the Pulitzer-prize-winning PolitiFact.com: If a website can list and analyze candidate’s claims, why shouldn’t reporters/editors be able to do so in the context of their articles? And doesn’t the fact that a group of enterprising journalists thought it worthwhile to check claims against the record imply that they felt traditional news outlets were falling down on the job?

    I wonder: how is reporting different from educating? (Or should we distinguish between “investigative reporting” and the more common, less in-depth kind?) Would we hold a teacher or professor to a different standard of accuracy than a reporter, and if so, why– especially since reporters can conceivably reach millions in one fell swoop?

    I think the reason the examples clustered around politics is because that is an area where truthfulness has suffered quite a drubbing. In response to Anne’s concern that certain candidates might be scrutinized more than others, I’d say we already see something worse happening: candidates claiming and implying virtually anything they want without being publicly pinioned. And I think that, given the current state of affairs, that is a much worse situation. I vividly recall my shocked disbelief that all the accusations during the last campaign of Obama being a socialist/Marxist/communist America-hating muslim were repeatedly broadcast with nary a blink let alone any sort of critical eye on most news channels (excepting MSNBC). To me, this is akin to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire–a speech act that should certainly be proscribed. It was very, very late in the campaign when McCain finally told an audience member that Obama was “not an Arab” but a “decent family man” –and was booed for it (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1008/14479.html). (Leave aside for a moment the undesirable implications of such a statement.) At the very least, I would think it useful for reporters to probe what candidates mean when they accuse an opponent of being X, or for reporters to clarify what X actually means, and where an accused candidate falls on some scale of actual X tendencies. Is even linguistic accuracy too much to ask?

  10. V. Brandt,

    Yet the example of PolitiFact.com may not militate in favor of this proposal, since notwithstanding its Pulitzer Prize for national reporting – awarded, it’s worth noting, by journalists to other journalists – it arguably illustrates some of the problems with having journalists undertake this kind of fact-checking. (A negative view of PolitiFact.com’s performance is outlined in the article I linked in comment #2.) But importing that brand of “fact-checking” from dedicated columns or resources such as PolitiFact.com into regular news reporting poses still other problems. For example, it often takes PolitiFact.com many paragraphs to assess even a one-sentence claim, and even then the fact-checking journalist’s findings can often be inconclusive or tendentious. So if newspaper writers are intent on pursuing this kind of gimmicky “fact-checking journalism” and imbuing it with the mystique of “fact” despite their almost congenital difficulties with letting opinions (their own or others’) be opinions, isn’t it arguably better to confine the enterprise to dedicated fact-checking columns? Letting it spill over into regular news reporting would, if nothing else, transform your average two-column political news story into an unreadable behemoth.

    Also, it hardly seems as though we have “candidates claiming and implying virtually anything they want without being publicly pinioned.” I think they get pinioned (o-pinioned?) on op-ed pages, political commentaries, PAC ads and so forth to an unprecedented degree! Owing particularly to the rise of the Internet and of ubiquitous and durable media such as video, the statements of public figures are subjected to scrutiny today in a manner previous generations could scarcely have imagined. The proliferation of opinion journalism is a big part of this, and that has some positive aspects. But on principle, I’m generally disinclined to favor anything that would fan the news media’s conceit (usually already only barely repressible) that it is an objective, detached, non-partisan interpreter of facts.

  11. Nemo,

    Right, I understand. Brisbane made them up, not you.

    You may be right that reporters aren’t good at figuring out which things they’re qualified to fact-check and which things they aren’t. But you conclude that reporters should not check the content of what politicians (or anyone else) say. That seems to me like a very bad idea. Reporters are good at checking facts. They aren’t perfect, but it’s the main way that the public is going to find out that what Romney said about Obama isn’t true.

    You say,
    Should the reporter also determine whether there are other linguists who take a different view from the first linguist (and if I know linguists, the answer will be yes),…

    You think some linguist will on the record declare that President Obama has apologized for America? I would like to see that. And is this something special about linguistics, or do you think this is always a problem with a reporter asking an expert of any sort?

    I think it will be a serious loss if newspapers stop fact-checking their articles.

  12. Jamie,

    I don’t think the proposal on the table is for reporters to stop fact-checking their articles. It’s about their adopting a new way of writing straight news articles. Bear in mind that newspapers already dissect the claims of politicians every which way (including Romney’s claim from the example), but most of it is taking place in columns and on the op-ed page.

    When I said what I said about linguists, I meant experts generally (though perhaps particularly outside of the hard sciences). As I mentioned earlier, I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of the *merits* of Romney’s claim. But it’s worth considering what we can learn from the kind of claim it is. First of all, it’s not even clear what kind of expertise is most appropriate here, and second, it’s the sort of very common where people would understandably question whether an expert’s opinion is conclusive at all. If you heard or read a person say something, you’d form your own opinion as to the degree to which it came across as apologetic, and an “expert opinion” to the contrary would be unlikely to cause you discard your own assessment (and quite rightly so, I’m inclined to think). And one may even question whether it matters what experts thought one way or another, unless we were particularly concerned about how the politician was coming across to experts (as opposed to, say, the leaders and populations of foreign countries).

    So I think Brisbane’s Romney example is an example of trying to fact-check something that is really more of a matter of opinion. I’m not saying that all opinions on the matter are equally well reasoned or well-supported, but it appears to me that sane and educated people who have heard the president’s remarks in question have drawn varying conclusions about them. The facts are that the president said what he said in the context in which he said them, and that people disagree about their meaning, tone and impact. Those facts can be, and have been, fact-checked and published in the media. Whether the president’s remarks were inordinately apologetic, and thus also the degree to which Romney is right or wrong, are matters of opinion. Do we want a reporter to interrupt a regular news story to tell us his or her opinion, or some expert’s opinion? That prospect just doesn’t sound very appealing to me.

    I don’t disagree that reporters are good (though as you say, not perfect) at checking facts, at least reporters of a certain kind and facts of a certain kind. But these days journalists do not seem to be more than moderately good at distinguishing fact from opinion, at least if the opinion in question is their own. I think phenomena such as PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org are illustrations of this. I read those two well-known “fact-check journalism” sites from time to time, and not uncommonly the journalists there seem to me to reach conclusions that are only opinions – often because what seemed to be a straightforward empirical claim was revealed upon examination to turn on more suble matters of opinion to begin with (which I believe is the case with the Romney claim, as it happens).

    As long as that kind of “fact-checking journalism” is reserved to dedicated sites, newspaper fact-check columns, and the op-ed pages, the journalists can “show their work” and we can assess their methodology and argument. If they adopted the same approach in regular news stories about, say, a candidate’s debate, then (as I suggested above) the news stories would quickly become unreadable. You’d need to add at least a paragraph (if not more) almost every time a candidate asserted something not universally acknowledged, and even then, half the time I suspect you’d end up with just another opinion among many.

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