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May 29, 2024, 12:37 p.m.
Reporting & Production

What’s with the rise of “fact-based journalism”?

“To describe one form of journalism as ‘fact-based’ is to tacitly acknowledge that there is also such a thing as ‘non-fact-based journalism.’ And there isn’t.”

Here’s a term you may be hearing with increasing frequency: “Fact-based journalism.” The Associated Press uses it in fund-raising appeals, as does ProPublica, and our local NPR affiliate. The National Association of Broadcasters and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting both describe themselves as purveyors of “fact-based journalism” in their public relations materials.

Even news outlets with an overtly partisan bent employ some variation of the term. The right-leaning The Dispatch, for instance, describes itself as a source of “fact-based conservative news.” The U.S. Agency for International Development uses the term as a guiding concept for its media development work.

When and why did this term rise to prominence? We did a keyword search of “fact-based journalism” in NewsBank, a news repository of over 12,000 sources, for the years 1990 through 2023.

As the graph below indicates, usage of the term ballooned starting in 2016 and saw a big spike in 2021. And as the graph also indicates, the term “fact-based journalism” was rarely used prior to the early 2000s.

The increasing usage of the term corresponds with the beginning of Trump’s presidency. Given this timing, we next conducted a parallel search of the term “fake news.” Our suspicion was that the term “fact-based journalism” arose in response to the rise of the notion of “fake news” that so dominated the discourse around journalism and politics during the Trump presidency. The results support our hypothesis.

As the next graph indicates, usage of the term “fact-based journalism” began escalating right as the term “fake news” took off in popularity. Though correlation doesn’t guarantee causality, the pattern below strongly suggests that the term’s use in the news industry may have been a response to the prevalence of “fake news” discourse within politics and the media.

As we noted above, usage of the term “fact-based journalism” experienced a massive spike in usage in 2021, when Trump was no longer president and usage of the term “fake news” had subsided. An examination of stories published in 2021 suggests why: That year, the Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, who pushed back against authoritarian regimes. The Nobel Committee hailed their work as indicative of the power of “free, independent, and fact-based journalism,” and this phrase appeared in multiple stories about the awarding of the prize.

As the graphs indicate, the use of “fact-based journalism” has remained relatively high in the years since the Nobel announcement, suggesting that the phrase has become an established part of the vocabulary around journalism.

As our politics and media have grown more polarized, and as the barriers to entry to operating a “news” organization evaporated, the media ecosystem has become a breeding ground for misinformation posing as news. In such an environment, identifying some approaches to journalism, or some news organizations, as bastions of “fact-based journalism” has become a way of trying to distinguish legitimate journalism from the rest of the dreck.

Similarly, as the Trump era ushered in the strategy of politicians slandering legitimate reporting as “fake news,” self-identifying as “fact-based journalism” became a way for news organizations to push back against efforts by politicians or hyperpartisan media outlets to discredit them.

Finally, over the past decade or so, the traditional notion of “objectivity” in journalism has increasingly been called into question and has, to some degree, fallen out of favor. In this context, fact-based journalism may be serving as an alternative descriptor to objectivity, but without the increasingly negative connotations associated with that term. It may even be that “fact-based journalism” is becoming a way of “rebranding” journalism.

However, while there may be compelling reasons to embrace the term “fact-based journalism,” doing so represents a damaging concession. To describe one form of journalism as “fact-based” is to tacitly acknowledge that there is also such a thing as “non-fact-based journalism.” And there isn’t.

“Fact-based journalism” is what linguists call a pleonasm — a redundancy in linguistic expression, like “black darkness.” All journalism is fact-based. If it’s not, then it’s not journalism.

Sure, opinion and partisanship have long played prominent roles in journalism. But for opinion to merit the label “opinion journalism,” or for partisan reporting to merit being called “partisan journalism,” they still need to be grounded in fact. (Interpretation of those shared facts can, of course, differ.)

The widespread embrace of the term “fact-based journalism” within the journalism community is a capitulation to those who are undermining the very notion of journalism, and thereby destabilizing the foundations of our democracy. We need to do more to defend and evangelize the parameters of journalism, not cede linguistic space to those seeking to blur these parameters as part of a broader political strategy.

If some sort of qualifier is indeed necessary in this age of widespread efforts to disguise falsity and political influence operations as journalism, then how about a term that goes on the offensive — perhaps “legitimate journalism” or “authentic journalism”? Such terms better distinguish organizations that are producing journalism from those that are making a mockery of it.

Philip M. Napoli is the James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy, in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. Asa Royal is an associate in research in the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, where he leads research initiatives on topics such as the economics and impact of local journalism, and the rise of “pink slime” news networks.

POSTED     May 29, 2024, 12:37 p.m.
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