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Journalists & Truth

Dr. Larry Burriss

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. --  Remember when Sergeant Joe Friday used to say “Just the facts”?  And remember when the heart of journalism was gathering facts and then writing a story based on those facts?  But what is supposed to happen if the reporters working on a story know the facts they are being given are wrong?  Should they challenge the source?

    That was the question a New York Times editor posed recently, asking if reporters should openly challenge public officials’ misleading claims.  The public seems split on the answer, but the quick answer is:  no.

    The job of a reporter is to gather information from as many sources as needed.  If the reporter thinks a source is lying, then the job then becomes one of finding another source to refute what the first source is saying.

    There are two problems with reporters injecting themselves into a story:  first, reporters are generally not experts.  That’s why they interview sources, to find the facts and the nuances that can help explain those facts.

    Second, reporters are supposed to be objective.  And not just actually objective;  they are supposed to avoid the appearance of a lack of objectivity.  If reporters openly question a source, then objectivity is destroyed, and the public is left with the impression that a reporter, and thus the story, is biased.

    None of this is to say that a news outlet can’t take a stand, and point out lies and distortions on the part of public figures and public officials.  But the place for those comments is on the editorial pages or in the clearly-labeled commentary.

    Certainly there are nut cases out there who present ideas that are just plain wrong.  But those people should be challenged by other sources, not by reporters themselves.  And part of that is a reporter saying to a source that others disagree with their position, then asking for comment.

    News is presented in a balanced manner, and part of that balance is obtained by using a variety of sources, not by reporters injecting themselves into a story.

    I’m Larry Burriss