Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Star columnists: Helling on truth, truthiness and truthfulness... why not just say no? and why waste space on fried macaroni?

Just say no.

For a journalist, saying no is difficult to impossible. But, in my opinion it's the real answer to the question Dave Helling raised in his Kansas City Star column today.

First, let me say I liked the column. The question of holding journalism's feet to the fire of truth is always a good one. And Helling makes a good case for the difficulty of establishing THE truth of a statement or a situation. His trick question about gas prices is compelling and not foreign to most reporters.

Of course, as Sissela Bok carefully pointed out in "Lying, Moral Choice in Public and Private Life," (must reading for every reporter) truth and truthfulness are different things. If a reporter held himself to only presenting THE truth, she'd only write once in a great while. But, her intention to be truthful, is a noble way of life.

But what does "intention to be truthful" mean?

I'd like make a small case for a different vision of it from the one often practiced by reporters in the field.

It means thinking hard about what truth means in the context of actually working for a news organization. Here's a centering question: Does getting the most truth out of the situation mean more than being first with the story?

It means rethinking what a story is, what news is. It may sometimes mean saying, "Whoa, this isn't a story. Yes, this here quote is sure newsworthy, but it isn't true, so it isn't a story."

What that suggests is reporters, who are, after all, in the truth business, ought to intend to discover the truth in every statement they report. "Every statement?" I'm writing this and cringing at the thought. But I'll stand by it. So, if they're reporting on the price of gasoline during Barack Obama's administration of the White House, it is incumbent on them to report all three of the "truths" Helling offers in his piece.

Because three competing truths exist doesn't mean the reporter should be paralyzed. It means the reporter should provide all three to the reader and let the reader decide.

But I'm wondering if sometimes the reporter should just say no. Of course that may mean Tony Botello will have the story first on his blog. Or somebody on television will mention it first at 6 p.m. Or, heaven forbid, CNN will get it first.

Competition is not a persuasive argument for anyone BUT reporters. The people whose lives are affected by news stories are certainly not persuaded by the argument. Nor are the readers who go to the newspaper or the blog for information. The only people persuaded by the necessity of beating the competition, are reporters. And, of course, the people who sign their paychecks.

Senator Jones calls Senator Smith a racist. Once Helling decides to write this story the cows are out of the barn. Let's say he calls Smith and asks him if he's a racist and Smith says, "Hell, no!" and Helling puts that in the second graph, or even in the lede. Nothing changes. A large percentage of readers will at least wonder if there is some truth in the charge and many will be sure it is true.

So, here's a novel idea. What if Helling decides not to write the story until his own highly developed sense of truth is satisfied? What if he demands evidence? What if he checks every angle as thoroughly as the responsibility of his profession demands? And what if he decides, then, not to write?

Would not writing be more truthful than writing in the traditional manner -- charge, denial, counter charge, denial?

Wouldn't providing all three truths about gas prices serve the reader better, especially if he also held the source's feet to the fire of all three truths?

I respect Helling's position here, don't get me wrong. I just want to push the argument a little farther.

When you think about the import of what Helling tackles in his column today and consider two other Star columnists chose to waste their space on Paula Deen, you can't help but be grateful. Now, really, Mary Sanchez and Jenee Osterheldt would have served us all well if they'd just said no to the temptation to write yet more vacuous words about Paula Deen. There is only so much of value you can say about fried macaroni.

They may have written the truth. But, then, who cares?


1 comment:

  1. I believe you penned what Helling may have been better served writing; his article was unsatisfying on a number of levels.

    I would also mention the timing of Helling's piece is curious, coming as it does nearly 3 weeks after Art's faux pas...