Can Reporters, Objective or Otherwise, Uncover Every Kind of Truth?

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Many journalists say it’s time to jettison traditional objectivity and focus more directly on pursuing the truth. As I wrote in a previous post, I think objectivity is still a valuable newsgathering tool.

But one thing that complicates this discussion is the fact that there are different kinds of truth. Some truths are the kind reporters can uncover and illuminate. Others, not so much.

For example, let’s say your editor assigns you to write a story about whether the death penalty has been an effective deterrent to crime. In other words, do states with the death penalty have lower homicide rates than those without?

For a good reporter this would be a fairly straightforward story. Get the homicide rates for states with and without the death penalty and compare, making allowances for population, demographics and so on. You would probably also interview some criminologists to get their take on this issue.

The point is, using statistics and information from experts you could produce a story showing what effect, if any, the death penalty has had on homicide rates. That’s because this is what you might call a quantifiable truth, one that can be revealed through statistical data.

But what if your editor assigned you a story not on whether the death penalty had been an effective crime deterrent, but whether it was a morally defensible policy? Obviously, that’s a very different kind of question, one probably more suited to philosophers and ethicists than journalists. It’s not really the kind of question that a hard-news reporter can answer.

Investigative reporters have written about the many problems and issues surrounding the death penalty, not the least of which is the fact that many prisoners on death row were wrongfully convicted. But that’s still different than making an ethical judgment about the death penalty in general.

That’s why the journalistic search for truth is more complicated than some people realize. It’s not just about whether reporters are objective or not. It’s about whether they should engage in subjective debates about right and wrong. In the past this has been the province of opinion journalists. Should hard-news reporters now enter this arena as well? I’m not sure how well that would serve our readers.

It’s not as if we have a shortage of opinion-mongers. There are, after all, editorial writers at print and online news outlets across the country, and opinion dominates much of cable news.

But I’m not convinced that readers or viewers want even more opinions in their news coverage. Sometimes you just want to know what happened at the city council meeting, then decide for yourself what to think about it. Let the straight-news reporters gather the facts and figures, and readers can make up their own minds.


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