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The "Truth vigilante" debate: an obvious question or a challenging discussion?

The "Truth vigilante" debate: an obvious question or a challenging discussion?

On January 12 Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times Public Editor wrote a post on his blog entitled "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?"

"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," he continued.

The community promptly reacted and the debate grew fast. Tweets gathered and readers, journalists and media commentators flooded the web with comments. Often sarcastic comments.

Even the New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson answered in a note that Brisbane appended to the update of the blog-post he wrote to clarify his original question.

Basically the predictable reaction is that of course Times journalists - as well all other journalists - should do "a rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing" job, in the words of Abramson. Rather they actually do it, most claimed.

In fact journalists reacting to the article seem quite incredulous about it how obvious the answer was from their point of view.

"I have to say I did not expect that so many people would interpret me to have asked only: should The Times print the truth and fact-check?" said Brisbane to Jim Romenesko who contacted him to ask his opinion on the rising tide of reactions.

"NYT public editor raises a question, gets blasted" titled Romenesko earlier.

"What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question," Brisbane told Romenesko.

"My inquiry related to whether The Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut "facts" that are offered by newsmakers when those "facts" are in question. I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one", Brisbane added to it in his update.

Besides "blistering comments" - as Jay Rosen described them on PressThink - journalists and media commentators went deeper into the debate about whether it is or not an obvious question.

"Now, it's worth noting that Brisbane's question makes perfect sense, considered from the newsroom's perspective", says Clay Shirky on the Guardian. "What was so extraordinary about his original question [is that] he is evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand - literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications - that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers' perspective. Readers do not care about the epistemological differences between lies and weasel words", Shirky wrote.

James Fallows on the Atlantic is amongst those looking at the bright side. "Apparently naive questions can often be the start of quite penetrating and profound explorations. [...] I think Brisbane deserves credit rather than ridicule for raising this question", he commented.

One aspect of the question is whether - besides the obvious duty of reporting facts - a truth-telling priority could have been ousted by other priorities as 'remaining objective' or maintaining what has been called the View From Nowhere.

The debate continues - amongst the others - on the Washington Post
and on the American Journalism Review.

So, naive question with an obvious answer, or a stimulating debate?

Sources: New York Times (1), (2), Twitter, Jim Romenesko, (1), (2), PressThink (1), (2), Guardian, the Atlantic, Washington Post, AMJ



Federica Cherubini


2012-01-13 19:00

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