Monday, January 23, 2012

Times Public Editor Brisbane gingerly moves to embrace more fact-checking, offers warnings; I suggest Atlantic Yards as a subject, offer examples of misleading coverage

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, fresh off his "Truth Vigilante" exploration, yesterday gingerly surveyed the new media world of dedicated fact-checking outlets/efforts. He pronounced himself somewhat chastened:
 Newspaper journalism’s traditional way of dealing with spurious claims, meanwhile, isn’t satisfying readers. Often derided as the “he said, she said” approach, this method entails finding and quoting someone to counter a claim, thereby offering a form of balance but no resolution. This sufficed in the past, for many at least, but now many readers are asking for more aggressive rebuttals.
I heard this loud and clear last week when I asked readers on my blog whether they wanted more fact-checking in straight news articles and they said, resoundingly, yes.
James Fallows, author of “Breaking the News” and a national correspondent for The Atlantic, told me it is incumbent on reporters to correct falsehood, not just balance it.
But he offered some caveats:
  • First, are you rebutting a fact that is quantifiable and knowable, or are you rebutting an opinion?
  • Can you fact-check without displaying bias? 
  • Don’t you risk making errors when you fact-check on short deadlines?
Fact-checking - argument?

His worry:
I join others who worry that The Times needs to be very careful with this. Jill Abramson, the executive editor, said that if fact-checking were made a “reflexive element of too many news stories, our readers would find The Times was being tendentious.” Readers, she added, could come to see The Times “as a combatant, not as an arbiter of what the facts were.”
Ubiquitous argument in straight news articles is not the way to go. Checking facts in politics — and in other subjects — takes time, resources and great care. Editors and reporters need to identify priorities and exercise judgment: they cannot do everything.
Need for a sidebar

His conclusion:
For these reasons, I think The Times should broaden the “Fact Check” sidebars to include issues that arise outside of the debate forum. Regular installments of fact-checking journalism, identified as such, would strengthen the paper’s approach. Links from fact-check items back to the original articles online would help readers connect the dots.
I favor rebutting assertions in some routine news articles. But The Times needs to be disciplined about it. The paper’s straight news function remains its most valuable asset, which would be undermined if argument replaced fact-gathering
My observation

Well, with Atlantic Yards, some routine "he said, she said" actually would be an improvement over accepting, in stenography form, mistaken assertions.

For example, in 9/10/09 coverage of a new report by the NYC Independent Budget Office, the Times quoted without question the dishonest claim by a spokesman for the NYC Economic Development Corporation that the Atlantic Yards was "now an open railyard without any public benefit."

But that requires actual outreach to people who know better.

I posted a comment:
If the Times is going to do some non-political fact-checking, why not start with the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, where so many facts promulgated by elected officials and the developer are supremely questionable, and the newspaper too often acts as a stenographer?
Take, for instance, the Times's unquestioning March 2010 coverage of promises regarding jobs made at the Atlantic Yards arena groundbreaking.
Or, even more glaring, consider the Times's coverage last year, *supported by* the Public Editor, of the spurious claim that the Barclays Center naming rights deal is worth "nearly $400 million," rather than, as documents indicated, a sum closer to $200 million.

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