Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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May 27, 2009, 8 a.m.

Dan Froomkin: Shout truth from the rooftops; passion is part of our job

[Here’s part two of Dan’s essay on the ills facing American newspapers; part one ran yesterday. —Josh]

While we legitimately want to keep partisanship and polemics out of our news coverage, we need to stop banishing our humanity and the passions that made us become journalists in the first place. When we find a great story, why shouldn’t we shout it from the rooftops? Web sites like the Huffington Post and Drudge succeed not just because they so intelligently aggregate the most eye-catching items from others, but because of the palpable joy they take in plastering a big headline across their homepages. That they prosper largely by linking to our work is not lost on us, but is too often leading to the wrong conclusion. It’s not that we shouldn’t let them link to us, it’s that we shouldn’t cede our passion to anyone.

And rather than play it safe, we should be brave enough to call things as we see them, and not be limited by the conventional wisdom or political triangulation. Indeed, playing it safe is often transparently bogus — and boring, too boot. I would also argue that the notion that by hiding our voices we are maintaining political neutrality is a fig leaf. Much of what we do is inevitably political; choosing what we write about, who we quote, what ideas we take seriously and which we disdain and ignore. Making political decisions through triangulation – trying to stake out a safe middle ground between the two political parties — is still making a political decision. It’s just often a not very good one.

Those who argue that truth-telling has become too political for us to engage in need to reexamine why they are in this business. Our job is to expose and combat lies and propaganda, not pass them along for fear of appearing partisan. That seven in 10 Americans at one point believed that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks is a profound indictment of our reluctance to champion the truth when it is under attack. We should consider it a key part of our job to differentiate for our readers between things that are true and untrue, arguable and inarguable.

The high priests of the church-state separation may take offense, but the fact is that there’s long been a confusing continuum in journalism ranging from straight news to opinion. And I suspect our hairsplitting distinctions have been lost on our readers. In the Internet age, the answer is not censoring ourselves in the name of obscure in-house rules, or trying to put inscrutable labels on everything. The answer is for us to call things as we seen them, and be up front about it.

So let’s keep a stable of true “opinion” writers — whose job is explicitly to take sides and polemicize on controversial issues. But let’s allow the folks on the “news” side to give members of the public the kind of analysis they’re craving. That means putting things in their proper context. It means not being afraid to explain that one position on an issue is better supported by the facts than the other, when that’s the case. It also allows for the advocating of basic human and journalistic values. I don’t think that conveying outrage over nondisclosure of public records — or children going hungry, or torture — disqualifies someone from calling themselves a news reporter. In fact, it’s what people expect from us — and are probably disappointed that they don’t get.

Tomorrow: News organizations’ key asset: Beat reporters.

Photo by J.D. Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 27, 2009, 8 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Dan Froomkin on news' future
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