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Strange politics and the role of journalists

Journalism Professor Tom Johnson offers three solutions to a hot elections question: “When the going gets weird, should reporters be truth vigilantes?”

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Tom Johnson is the Amon G. Carter Jr. Centennial Professor in the School of Journalism. He researches elections and the role of the media including the Internet, social networking sites, blogs, talk radio and television.


Tom Johnson

Professor Tom Johnson has studied the role of the media in each election since 1984.Photo: Marsha Miller

Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson once wrote: “When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.” This has been an election where the weird has become commonplace.

One-time front runner Rick Perry’s poll numbers fell faster than a carrier pigeon carrying a bowling ball because of his “oops” moment when he couldn’t remember he wanted to pull the plug on the Department of Energy. Republicans engaged in anti-capitalist rhetoric when they accused Mitt Romney of being a “vulture capitalist” for eliminating jobs during his years running Bain Capital. The candidates debated the merits of establishing a space colony on the moon and granting it statehood.

But for me the crème de la weird of the election so far didn’t happen on the campaign trail but in The New York Times newsroom.

A few weeks ago, the Times’ public editor asked in a blog entry whether reporters should act as a “truth vigilante.” That is, if a candidate makes a claim that the reporter believes is untrue, can the reporter point this out in a way that is objective and fair? Reaction from readers was swift and damning.

As Lucas Graves noted in a column for the Nieman Journalism Lab, of the 265 comments logged in during the three hours after the column ran, only two disagreed with the claim that journalists should challenge lies and distortions made by politicians. Some thought his question was a joke; the basic job of the reporter is to uncover the truth. Others lamented that it shows how far mainstream journalism has fallen.

Several columnists, including Graves and James Fallows of The Atlantic, took a broader perspective and argued that The New York Times public editor’s question shows the large gap between the public and reporters’ idea of what journalists should do. Journalists argue that rarely is truth black and white, but is usually shades of gray. Journalists are supposed to be fair and balanced, and by calling out a politician for telling a lie, that would give the appearance of taking sides.

To remain fair and balanced, Graves and Fallows note that journalists neutrally report both sides of a controversy, leaving it up to columnists and fact-checking organizations such as FactCheck.org or Politifact to sort out what is true and what is false. But sometimes the truth is black and white and by reporting both sides you create a false equivalence where both sides are presented as equally true. This approach reduces the role of journalists to stenographers tasked with accurately reporting what each side says.

Election 2012 graphic


The 2012 election season is promising to be one of the most unpredictable cycles in recent history.

Experts from across The University of Texas at Austin will weigh in here on the politics and the issues.

My journalism colleague Regina Lawrence and her co-author Matthew Schafer discussed this problem in the coverage of Sarah Palin’s death panel claims. They analyzed more than 700 stories in the top 50 newspapers to see how they reported Sarah Palin’s Facebook claim that her baby with Down Syndrome “will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide whether they are worthy of health care.”

The researchers found that about 40 percent of the time reporters did point out the death panel claims were false, usually in their own words rather than finding a source to debunk the claims (breaking their own rules about neutral reporting).  But even in 30 percent of those stories where they did debunk the death panel claim they provided quotes from the other side of the argument.

Schafer and Lawrence note that reporting the controversy and giving weight to those who argued the Obama health care bill called for death panels reinforced a sense that the arguments were valid.

How can reporters challenge false claims made by politicians without giving the perception of taking sides?  I have three suggestions:

First, don’t report the lies in the first place. Admittedly, this is not always possible.  Sometimes false claims are made so prominently that they are hard to ignore. But the death panel claim arose from Palin’s Facebook page. Other times the lie may be made in a prominent setting such as a debate, but receive attention only because the comments were controversial and incendiary, such as when Rick Perry branded President Obama a socialist in a presidential debate. Reporters need to just say no to reporting lies.

Second, some lies are reported often enough that reporters can take the time to find authoritative arguments from impeachable sources to debunk the lies. For instance, Republican candidates have said that scientists have not reached a consensus that global warming exists and is caused by human behavior. However, the leading climate organization Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the 2007 Nobel Prize, has argued that the evidence for climate change is unequivocal and they have very high confidence that human actions are the major cause. Having a source such as the IPCC ready to plug into stories that challenge climate change, provides reporters with expert evidence to challenge candidate claims without having to go on a long hunt for evidence.

Third, if reporters argue that they should not be truth vigilantes but should leave that responsibility to fact checkers like Politifact or FactCheck.org, then they should rely on the these sources more than they do to debunk misstatements from politicians. In Brisbane’s columns he asked if reporters should challenge Mitt Romney’s claim that President Obama has gone around the world making speeches apologizing for America. But reporters do not have to. Politifact issued a lengthy report in March 2010 and concluded the claim the Obama went on an apology tour was false.

I have done several studies examining credibility of alternative news sources such as blogs. I have consistently found that individuals who turn to alternative news sources do so because these sites are not bound by the journalistic standards of fairness and balance and provide more depth, analysis and insight than traditional media.

However, if fundamental differences exist between what reporters and their audience view is the proper role of journalists, this not only hurts the credibility of newspapers, but also further distances journalists from their audience they are trying to reach.