Sunday, August 01, 2021

Seares: Reporting both sides: when the journalist goes beyond 'he-said, she said' and calls out the lie.

Medias Public

[] New York Times headlines: 1. "Fact Check: Trump falsely claims 99% of virus cases are 'totally harmless'" (July 7, 2020). 2. "Trump falsely targets Buffalo protester, 75, as 'Antifa Provocateur'" (June 22, 2020)

[] Posted on Facebook September 11, 2020 by Queenie Bronce, former editor-in-chief of Cebu's The Freeman: "Journalism 101: If someone says it's raining and another person says it's dry, it's not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the f**king window and find out which is true."

The New York Times headlines cited here are unusual but do not violate the precept about fairness, which underlies the journalism edict to be "objective."

In the first, about US President Trump's claim that 99 percent of the coronavirus are "totally harmless," the story is special, purposely to fact-check thoroughly the president's claim. That necessarily requires a conclusion and the finding must be included in the headline.

In the second, about Trump tagging a protester as rabble-rouser, the story is not specifically fact-checking, yet a major facet of the information is brought high up, in the headline no less.

Who can fact-check

Fact-checking is now being used by a few news organizations to help shoot down "fake news" and other false information.

The task requires more people, special skill and time. Most Philippine news organizations -- long afflicted by industry woes worsened by the pandemic -- don't have the resources for it. News outlets that come up with special "fact-check" articles usually accept outside funding, which they disclose with the published story.

That doesn't mean local news media cannot engage in fact-checking. It doesn't have to be a special task, with a special unit in the newsroom.

Thy name: verification

Fact-checking has been, in fact, always be part of solid news reporting. "Journalism 101," said Queenie Sanchez Bronce, ex-journalist and now Veco publicist.

Journ teachers call it verification, a basic tool for gathering and writing the news.

Many reporters though fall into the rut of "he said, she said," going no further than getting and telling what one camp and the other camp say about an issue or event.

No reconciling of clashing data. No shedding light on murky areas of the story. And, most often, no judgment on who is right and who is wrong.

Verification, not always within reach and can be a tough, is thus confined to what critics call the "stenographic" method of reporting: "he said, she said."

Sacred 'objectivity'

That does not help the reader who may not know or care. More worrisome is that many of today's media consumers just dig in when fed with multitudes of unverified, even bogus data, with not enough media savvy to digest or otherwise process the information.

Journalists -- stuck with mass-com school learning, which many newsroom editors unfortunately keep unstuck -- hold "objectivity" as sacred. Worse, many reporters believe, falsely, that once they put both sides in the story, they are already being fair and have done their sacred duty. A SunStar editor used to call it "mindless objectivity."

Along with the homage to that journalism idol is the fear that the reporter and his media outlet may be seen to favor one camp or idea over a competing camp or idea. Reporting in the news that Trump -- or Duterte or Labella -- said something false would seem to make it more vulnerable to the charge that the news organization is taking sides.

When facts scream 'false'

But what if the news source makes a claim, which verifiable information patently belies, must the reporter keep his "objectivity" over apparent or plain falsehood?

An encouraging development is that many news organizations in the US, except conservative and rightist media outlets, call it as it is. When it is a clear lie, as shown by authenticated document or video, they trumpet it as untrue, along with the supporting facts. Thus the word "false" or "falsely" is increasingly being used in news headlines.

Beyond looking out

Calling out a lie can be "so very hard to do," like in the Bacharach song about breaking up.

It's not always as patent as when Trump contradicts what science has conclusively established about Covid-19, "a deadly disease."

And often not as simple as what Queenie B. suggests: "to find out if it's raining, look out the f**cking window." It may rain heavily in Cebu City where one claimant stands but maybe not a drop of rain in Talisay City where the other claimant is. The reporter has to do more: check out other sources like the Weather Bureau. Plus, in more complicated disputes, sort out and reconcile the facts.

Much easier just to print both sides but that hardly works anymore for public interest. These days, a public official can lie through his teeth and lie again and again when confronted with video record or document of his lie.


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