Truth, truthiness and balance

Arthur Brisbane, Public Opinion editor for the NY Times, has copped a well deserved shellacking for a column in which he asked whether reporters should act as ‘truth vigilantes’ in relation to statements made by public figures.

Having observed the silliness of asking whether newspapers should (aspire to) tell the truth, the obvious question is: How should they telll it. Here are a some suggestions

1. Its unreasonable to expect reporters to take the burden from scratch in refuting zombie lies. Newspapers, including the NYT, should include a set of factual conclusions, regularly updated, in their style manuals. The most relevant current example is that of global warming. As with the current account deficit (routinely glossed as ‘the broadest measure of the balance of payments’) the NYT should formulate a standard set of words, such as “a conclusion endorsed by every major scientific organization in the world’) to be used whenever the views of Repubs on the issue are mentioned. Similarly, any reference to claims about ‘Climategate’ should include the words ‘a conspiracy theory refuted by a number of inquiries in the US and UK’. Rinse and repeat wrt evolution, the Ryan budget plan etc


2. If the approach suggested above, it will rapidly become apparent that Republicans lie all of the time about everything, whereas Democrats only lie some of the time about some things. A serious paper of record would acknowledge this, noting the partial exceptions like Jon Huntsman. That is, if the NYT were reallly serious about truth, it would gloss every statement by a Repub as (X, a member of the Republican Party claimed Y. Extensive studies by the NYT have shown that most statements by members of the Republican party are false. In this case …)


3. This is a sad state of affairs, just as its sad that Americans won’t have a chance to vote for a serious  Presidential candidate who opposes indefinite detention of innocent people. But that is the situation and organizations like the NYT have limited choices – they can either publish lies or be ‘truth vigilantes’.

18 thoughts on “Truth, truthiness and balance

  1. truth vigilantes?

    what the hell is that?

    they are either broadcasters of verified news or they are opinionated entertainers.

  2. How about this.

    Every page of every newspaper should be required to display a the top of the page (and maybe the bottom and in the middle somewhere) these words:

    All humans are liars

    Humans, in interacting with each other, lie frequently. We know this from neurological studies. “Frequently” might not be such a good word – maybe “continuously” might be closer to the truth.

    I am sure there are exceptions:

    * people with neurological damage to those regions of the brain necessary for lying or for speaking
    * people who spend all day in isolation from others
    * those who have taken a vow of silence
    * me (i swear – really, I’ve only ever told one lie and it’s this one)
    * you (because I’d hate to be accused of calling you a liar)
    * ditto for everyone who read this blog 🙂

    There’s also the huge area of thought on the meaning of “truth”.

    And, people could actually be lying (in that they are using those areas of the brain that is used for lying) but because they are mistaken about some base assumption are actually speaking the truth.

    I like what Moses tried to convey about it:

    There is no truth but the whole truth.
    Don’t kid yourself that you know even part of the whole truth absolutely.
    Don’t assert as truth anything unless required to do so in a court of law.

    Bottom line – don’t read newspapers or watch TV or see them for what they are – entertainment with advertising paid for by those who wish to influence anyone silly enough to read/watch them.

    Personally, i prefer to use yahoo pipes – I consolidate a few hundred web site’s RSS feeds, run them through a filter to remove as many pointless articles as possible and then feed that into an RSS feed display that presents them without pictures in columns – like old time newspapers. At a glance I can see if a headline might be worth expanding to look at and possibly read.

    Of course it’s a hit and miss thing with adding feeds to it – like for example I had to take out almost the entire SMH’s feeds as they produce just so much rubbish.

    But it works for me and it means I really don’t read much about liars lying to people they want to mislead.

    Over time I’ve found that what it does is reduce time wasted on a few sites here or there and it helps put sites into perspective against the general noise of humanity – there are sites that I used to visit every day (eg Von Mises Institute, Mish Shedlock, Zerohedge and the feeds of every economist who has a blog 😉 ) that when seen as just headlines against the general backdrop can be seen for what they are – entertaining rubbish.



  3. dear John Quiggen
    i’d like it if every issue canvassed or reported in a newspaper of substance customarily had two signed articles about it – one from the right whingers view, one from the left view. like proofs in projective geometry.
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison

  4. I’d just like to advise everyone I have downgraded all ratings agencies to ZZZ minus, “worse than junk” status.


  5. now,now,mustn’t get carried away here.

    or we’ll end up in the hell of american style polarisation.

    it’s black.
    no it’s not,it’s white.
    hold on guys,lets triangulate a
    bit here,it’s not black or white,it’s grey!

    erm excuse me?

    we live in a full colour world.

    news broadcasting makes mistakes. yes?

    retractions,corrections and verification.
    for those whose proffession and business is news broadcasting,if credibility is to be maintained,retractions corrections and verification keep it real.

  6. I have little sympathy for the argument that a journalist has no time to check all the statements reported in his/her article. In my field (engineering) if I produce a report or memo I take responsibility for everything said therein. So if someone claims that a piece of equipment will cost $1million, before I report this I must cross-check it against other sources to see if it “looks about right” and even then I will state “according to Vendor X, this will cost $1million”. I would be foolish and unprofessional if, when the eventual price was found to be $2million, all I could say is (looking down at shoes) “Well, I had this deadline, see…”

  7. It is a good suggestion for a cheat sheet for journalists such as Prof Q proposes. The difference between engineering and journalism is that journalists are not specialists and often venture outside their areas of expertise and knowledge. However it requires an outlet that values truth above propoganda.

  8. ‘…
    If the claim is true, then the answer to “what?” is that the candidate criticized her opponent’s poor attendance record. That’s news. If the claim is false, then the answer to “what?” is something else — either the story is that the candidate has committed an embarrassing gaffe by getting her facts wrong, or the story is that the candidate is attempting to mislead the public. Either way, that’s big news.

    In any case, it’s impossible to write the story — to write the headline, the lede, the nut graf — until the reporter checks it out and determines whether or not the candidate’s claim is, in fact, true.

  9. @Jill Rush
    Jill, On the contrary, when I step away from my area of expertise, that is the time when I most need to check the facts! It’s not enough that journos should be asking the questions, they should be questioning the answers…

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