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Are journalists supposed to look for the truth?

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By Jerry Lanson

It's bad enough that so much 24-7 cable television deteriorates into an unfinished food fight between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, typically moderated by a "journalist" lacking the interest or will to  figure out whose facts are right.  But when the public editor of the venerable  New York Times publicly asks his readers if journalists should parse the B.S. to get to the truth, I've got wonder who blew up the principles of journalistic fairness.

Surely American journalists don't need comedian Jon Stewart to tell them "fact-checking is a function of news."  Or do they?

It's been two years since Stewart took on the CNN denizens of "we'll leave it there" in this long, funny and damning piece on the Daily Show (click link and move in to the 2 minutes, 29 second mark.)

Not a whole lot has changed since Stewart's schtick, which shows correspondent after correspondent making next to no effort to shed light on false or murky claims.  At least nothing much changed until yesterday -- when things got worse.

Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, in the spirit of contemplative interactive news, asked his readers in so many words, "How should we cover the news?"

He began  his column like this:

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.

Huh, what?

Did he really need to ask readers what reporters are supposed to do for a living?  Brisbane, according to his Times bio, has been in journalism for well over 30 years.  Surely, he's heard the old journalism saw, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Facts -- yes, "true facts" is a redundant -- are his profession's lifeblood.

Or maybe not. Here's more of his column:

... on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches "apologizing for America," a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the "post-truth" stage.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

"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."

The answer, Mr. Brisbane, is this. Reporters should make clear that the president has never used that word and then characterize what he has said. That's called context, a longstanding journalistic concept. But that context can be provided without characterizing Romney's words as misleading, which is an opinion.

Contextualized facts allow readers to sort through disagreement and reach their own conclusions.  It's a long way from the spin passed off as news at places like Fox.

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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.

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