Thursday, January 12, 2012

Should the Times Be A Truth Vigilante?

That's the question Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor posed today. It has to do with the responsibilities reporters might or might not have to correct statements that they know to be untrue.

Brisbane puts it like this:
I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

One example mentioned recently by a reader: As cited in an Adam Liptak article on the Supreme Court, a court spokeswoman said Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. The reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas “misunderstood,” and instead that he simply chose not to report the information.

Another example: on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?
Nah. Just insert a disclaimer in cat-sized letters on top of any article you publish. My suggestion:

Dear Reader,

Nothing you read here has been checked for truthfulness.


That should get you off the hook. If some things have actually been checked, then you can add a list of them in the disclaimer, together with their truth-or-false values.

I'm not completely joking when I make that proposal. The reason is simple:

Many readers clearly still believe that something published in the NYT that looks like a fact indeed is a fact. A disclaimer would take care of that belief.

But if we wish to do something more complicated, how about using the old [sic] to denote a presumably factual statement that is well known to be false? That could be inserted into quotes and such.