Accuracy in Media

Normally the columns by the public editor, or ombudsman, for The New York Times over the years have only raised an occasional eyebrow, and that is usually when he or she has actually criticized something that appeared in the paper.

All that changed this week when the current public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote a column and asked readers the following question:

 Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?

Reaction was swift and harsh as readers and journalists wondered if Brisbane hadn’t set up the Times for ridicule by making it appear that the paper was considering printing anything but the truth.

Liberals and conservatives will disagree as to whether or not the Times does print the truth, though there should be little doubt that what they print is done with a liberal bias, where opinion trumps facts.

Brisbane’s column was in reaction to mail received from readers asking why the paper doesn’t incorporate its documentation of falsehoods by candidates and others into the primary article rather than dealing with them separately.

He saw this as the reader putting the truth above the reporters imposing their own judgment, and wondered how the Times could do that and still be fair and objective?

First of all, reporters are supposed to report the news and therefore they should be fair and objective in their stories. If they are covering a candidate or issue and discover that what they have been told is inaccurate then they have the responsibility to make that known to the reader.

There should be no choice between telling the truth and being fair and objective. Reporters should do both. Period.

Jay Rosen summed up a majority of the critics’ response to Brisbane’s column when he wrote the following in his PressThink blog:

“How can telling the truth ever take a back seat in the serious business of reporting the news? That’s like saying medical doctors no longer put ‘saving lives’ or ‘the health of the patient’ ahead of securing payment from insurance companies. It puts the lie to the entire contraption. It devastates journalism as a public service and honorable profession.

What Rosen and liberal journalists are more upset about, though, is that Brisbane’s question only provided more fodder for conservatives who have questioned the Times’ accuracy and fairness for many years.

Brisbane told Jim Romenesko, the former blogger for The Poynter Institute, that he was surprised that so many people thought he was asking if the Times should print the truth and fact-check, saying that of course the paper should, adding that the readers responded to a question he didn’t ask.

Maybe Brisbane didn’t think he asked the question, but it’s clear that virtually everyone who read his column thought he did, and that’s what counts.

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