TED Conversations

Dan Jacob

CEO , The IDIA Group


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Should newspapers be truth vigilantes?

Arthur Brisbane, Public Editor for the New York Times wrote an interesting article OpEd today (January 12, 2012) asking "Should the New York Times Be a Truth Vigilante?"

The article can be found here: http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/should-the-times-be-a-truth-vigilante/

In a time where people are being bombarded with information, what role (if any) should newspapers play in correcting un-informed, egregiously inaccurate statements? What implications would this have?

To quote Brisbane:

"...[People] look to The [New York] Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.
Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?"

Interested to hear your thoughts on this one...

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    Jan 13 2012: Newspapers, like other media, are held hostage by corporations who do not want us to know many things that are true..

    Facts are not perspective.
  • Jan 23 2012: I'd reframe the idea as "Fact Vigilantes" rather than "Truth Vigilantes".
    • Jan 27 2012: Cheers Dave, narrowing the scope of the question in that way has helped me answer the larger one.

      The following statement is true:
      the US military spends millions of dollars annually funding entomologists.
      “What, in the name of (insert preferred deity/profanity here), are they doing?” You may well ask. I did. We should have asked a mountain of questions first ‘though. We should have checked our facts. Here’s some we could check before we start asking other questions:
      1.Do they?
      2.How many million?
      3.What’s an entomologist?
      Let’s imagine we have complete co-operation from the US military. Let’s imagine we can afford the army of forensic accountants. Let’s imagine the relevant curriculum was taught and the accrediting bodies did their job. Let’s imagine we asked all the relevant questions, to the right people and in the right places; and got sufficient answers to establish the truth of the statement.
      You could even just ask George W. Korch Jr, Ph.D. at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response, if he’s still there (just ask for George Korch, you can drop the Lieutenant Colonel).

      Cool, so what’s he going to say? How, yes, millions have been spent protecting you from disease vectors, in bio-defence and other things vital to national security. Interestingly, it’s quite possible he doesn’t know about the “other things”.
      So who can find out for you? A truth vigilante? A blogger, a newspaper, Fox? For reasons that should be obvious to you by now: they can’t. Let alone should.
      Good news America! There are people that can. They’re not truth vigilantes. They’re highly paid and motivated truth bureaucrats. They’re not self-appointed. You’re about to elect the most important one in the world. Choose wisely please.
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    Jan 13 2012: Hi Dan,

    A good time to revisit here at TED Conversations, the condition of the 4th estate, the pillar of democracy.

    Without a functioning 4th estate there can be no democracy.

    At a time when we need truth and accuracy and balanced coverage more than ever it is so disappointig and frustrating to see the bias, inaccuracy and huge gaps in coverage in old stand bys like the New York Times.

    We have visited this with Alisa Miller here at TED Conversations in two or three excellent long conversations and once or twice have visited it via discussion about coverage of a specific major world event. All concluded ,more or less, that it is very hard work to seek and know the truth on any issue.

    We have never visited the financial side of that..whether there is a sufficient market for truth, or at least unbiased factual reporting, that newspapers and broadcast journalism can be profitably independent of corporate sponsorship and advertiser maniipulation.

    Do "we the people" really care enough about the truth to pay for it?

    At our several TED conversations on this we all referred to the growing importance of citizen journalists but that too is a very mixed world most often tainted by opnion, rarely balanced, and frequently light on facts and accuracy.

    So a truth seeker has to wade through a lot of questionable material outside of offical print and broadcast journalism as well.

    Maybe we need a good housekeeping seal of approval for both citizen journalism and for conventional print and broadcast journalism. If we had that, most of what is treated as journalism would be reclassified as "entertainment" or "political speech"
  • Jan 27 2012: I suppose I parse the word "truth" fairly narrowly as a more subjective philosophical concept than an objective experiential one. i.e. We may all agree on the facts but wildly differ on the truth of their meaning.

    I differ with you a little on just how "not self-appointed" or elected officials tend to be. To suggest that a largely white, upper class male with an advance college degree (very often in law) is representative of who the American people want to represent them seems unlikely. There is a screening process which tends to eliminate anyone outside that demographic with a few obvious exceptions. However, even the exceptions tend to be more a matter of appearance than substance. Through our own ignorance and apathy, we have allowed ourselves to be taken over by an small, narrowly self-interested oligarchy.
  • Jan 23 2012: : I think it all depends on the readers who read newspapers regularly.
    Even though I don't know much about New York Times(since I read Korean newspapers more), the things that have to be improved and changed are distributive throughout all of the media.

    Personally,I prefer to read several kinds of newspapers as long as I can read, and compare those articles one another, and then organize the facts I recognize and the common position toward the same affair.

    Because depends on the newspapers I choose to read, the reporter's take on how they perceived and analyzed the affair are more or less, or sometimes totally, different.

    I suppose New York Times might not be able to be totally truth vigilantes,
    So are other newspapers.

    But only you can be a "self-vigilantes(so to speak)" only if you try hard not to be biased by one single article.
    Simple put, rather than just blaming problems that are found in one single kind of newspapers, why don't you be more active to find out the truth and try to be more suspicious of the single story that are found in an article.

    It's all up to you, if you ask me.

    (Sorry for suggesting irrelevant opinion,btw.)
    • Jan 24 2012: And I'm sorry for my use of idiom in the previous comment.
      It's interesting how our opinions differ on the usefulness of the excercise. Perhaps it's because of our methodologies?
      You choose to read newspapers: I had to be bribed with a wage.You choose which newspapers to read: mine were randomly assigned. You choose which articles to read: I had to read every word or face the sack.
      We've hardly read a word and already our opinions have been biased by choice and coercion.
      Maybe we could control those and many other variables with randomisation?
      Do we read a newspaper today or not? Toss a coin. Which newspaper? Roll a dice. Which article? Roll a 6, we read it. Info roulette.
      Nice aphorism btw. Like it a lot.
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    Jan 18 2012: Dan,


    But any institutions success at being "truth vigilantes" is inextricably intertwined with the cultures within which they exist.

    As journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski puts it:

    "We are (all) taking part in something of which we are both witness and creators"

    Which means all who are affected by news media, communicate via it, or produce news must defend truth, and act, as you put it, as "vigilantes" for truth.

    More critically, all must communicate with truth in all actions, and amplify the truth as persistently and publicly possible via whatever means -- and media is arguably the most publicly powerful means there is, these days.

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    Jan 14 2012: Newspapers shouldn't be truth vigilantes, because reporting without a bias is impossible (though they should try their hardest to do so). Newspaper readers should be the real truth vigilantes. It's up to you, the reader, to know what you're reading and who wrote it, and how both those things affect perception of the truth.
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    Jan 13 2012: Mass news media is dying. Slowly but, most assuredly, surely.
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    Feb 2 2012: The media relies too much on individuals' ability; it can never be completely objective unless the world becomes a utopia.
  • Feb 2 2012: I think that the pursuit of an unbiased, realistic media is a great start for an accurate depiction of the worlds activities.
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    Jan 27 2012: Agree with David about Fact Vs TRUTH.
    To survive newspaper have to in the erea of social network and connectivity....
  • Jan 23 2012: I've got to say no.

    For several years I got paid to read national newspapers. On any given night it may have been: The Times, Guardian, Sun, Wall Street Journal (International ed.), Express. Colleagues would read the others. We'd then collate the articles on any given subject. Finally: attempt to produce a summary of those articles.

    Getting the truth after it's been through a newspaper is like getting a mackerel after it's been through a shark.
    Sure, you can have a good go at picking the bones out. You'll have to sift through a lot of faeces and everything's going to smell fishy afterward.
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    Jan 22 2012: Even given what you say or even some of what you say is true. I would argue that globally, people are becoming wiser and taking responsibility for themselves. The experts are relevant but not exclusive in the wisdom required to evolve from where we are to a more suitable (and truly democratic) democracy. This will come from the people and not the powerful. Even "infotainment" evolves us, if only by teaching us what we do not want in order to inspire the creation of what we do want.
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    Jan 22 2012: All people should pursue the truth to the greatest extent they are capable of it. Sources of news should list their facts and analysis and include their sources and apply the scientific principal to vetting "truth" by attempting to prove anything presented as a fact and opening up to public evaluation of their process of verification. That is the best approximation of truth I can imagine being possible at our current society, hopefully this too will evolve with the rest of our social evolution over time.

    This boils down to crowdsourcing news in the specific sense of crowdsourcing proof of the "truth" being presented by news. I would go further and say that any source of news that is not transparent about the process and open about sources and opposing information (not necessarily opinion) is at least disingenuous if not dishonest and should not be trusted as a source of "truth".

    When this topic closes if anyone is interested in persisting it please consider continuing the conversation here: http://www.wesolver.org/wiki/Crowdsourcing_News
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      Jan 22 2012: It's always easier to control--and socially condition--a misinformed (and disinterested) populace. Give the angry mob Superbowl, Nascar, and UFC; when you can keep them busy, and distracted, you are well on your way to running the USA the way it should be run. Those in power believe that the masses are too irresponsible to rule over their own lives, it's for the best if we leave those decisions to the experts. To effectively run a democracy, you need to have a news media that is subservient. The new news media of today is merely there to sensationalize scandal, and entertain--queue in the "infotainment".
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    Jan 22 2012: How can the "truth" be written when the only thing about "truth" is that it changes. We need "disclosure" then we can determine our own truth. Honest disclosure.
  • Jan 22 2012: I think that they should report not only objective truths, but actually think about what truths they are publishing too. Then weigh up the importance and implications of what publishing the truth will do. I know one thing that always baffles me is all these gossip magazines which have stories about celebrities love lives. I think that would be the last kind of truth I'd ever want to hear in a newspaper (Luckily the papers I read it's not reached that state yet).

    I would think it's important to try and get such truths out there which will actually be of some importance to the people reading the paper. Make it clear what the article is about straight from the beginning. They should have clear and concise titles, and not go with something because they think it's 'punny' And most of all, offer references to any information that they pull out. The last thing I want to hear is "after a recent study...". Offer a direct link to a source if available. Little things that allow people to chase up the facts if they're interested.
  • Jan 22 2012: Hi Mr. Jacob, Do you live in New York? ( just asking?)
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      Jan 22 2012: Hi Tishe,

      Actually, I live in Toronto, Canada. However I am in New York regularly.

      Thanks for taking part in the conversation! Trust all is well.

      • Jan 23 2012: Thank you, all is well! I was wondering because, news and newspapers, are different. It depends on the population and the popularity, of said city. My humble opinion. Great question and really interesting responses! :)
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    Jan 21 2012: Truth is essential in reporting. Truth in reporting must be unbiased, unflinching, and without reproach. As Albert Einstein said "Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters." Unless a newspaper is devolving into a gossip column on daily events, it must uphold the basic tenant of journalism.

    On the website "Journalism.org" the first Principle of Journalism is :
    " Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can--and must--pursue it in a practical sense. This "journalistic truth" is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built--context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The truth, over time, emerges from this forum. As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need--not less--for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting it in context."

    This should not be a hard question, although the term vigilante indicates a desire or need to meet out punishment to those perceived to be wrong-doers, which is inflammatory, and negates the idea of unbiased journalistic integrity.
  • Jan 21 2012: "Vigilante" is a loaded word. But newspaper reporters checking facts, rather than just transcribing what people tell them? That would be doing their job! How did we get to the point where such a thing is controversial?
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    Jan 20 2012: I would be happy with the unvarnished facts and allow me to draw conclussions. That I feel is the job of the reporter. Now, more than any other time in history, we have the resources available to research and determine what is our truth.
    Like in politics what I see is not what you see. It is my responsibility to evaluate not the papers.
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    Jan 17 2012: The major news media should be immediately abandoned by any society that values its future in favor of the incredible quantities of source material available via the Internet. I get my news from You Tube and several news blogs that censor nothing. The major news outlets are not only corporate, they are cowardly.
  • Jan 15 2012: Yes. "The truth shall set you free." The MEDIA has asked the public to purchase their commodity, information. The public has the moral and civil expectation that what that media is providing is the truth, without alteration. A free press bears the responsibility to be self-policing to maintain the highest standards regarding truth in what it reports as news. To behave otherwise invites censorship, regulation and slavery. I see a similarity of trust/truth responsibilty wherever there exists inherant vulnerabilty In nursing practice, patients are about as vulnerable to harm as a person can become. Any nurse can be abusive at any time and most likely would not be discovered. The media has the same responsiblity to do no harm that a nurse bears. A self-policing media is essential to assure that the public has unfettered access to the truth.
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      Jan 15 2012: While a media that regulates itself sounds great, it doesn't sound realistic. It is not in the interest of news organizations to self-regulate, so they won't do it. In relation to your nurse metaphor, nurses are compeled to not abuse patients by the power of the law. Then should the media be compelled to present the truth by the law?
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    Jan 14 2012: Truth is easy. (The sun came up this morning. Barack Obama is the president of the U.S. Germans buy and sell things using euros.). So is the opposite of truth, i.e. lies (Mushrooms are 150 feet high and bear pine cones; my next door neighbor is the Nigerian ambassador to Andorra).

    Fair is *not* easy! Objective is in the eye of the beholder.

    Which truths are 'relevant' depends entirely on one's feelings. Some care if Lindsay Lohan is dating and consider celebrity marriages a critical part of their lives. Many don't give a dang if an earthquake wipes out entire villages in Java.

    Media constantly try to find what kinds of facts -- or stories, or lies -- appeal to their audience(s) and try to deliver them. And folks spend money to get what they want. End of story.

    If you want truth, go outside... don't read or watch TV or listen to the radio.... and watch and listen. At least that way you eliminate *some* of the filters. (I can't see infrared as butterflies do, or hear trans-sonic vibrations of the air as bats do -- and that's fine!) If I want to know what's going on in London, England tomorrow -- and only want the truth -- I need to fly there. I bet the sun will rise there, too. And I'll bet that a wad of euros won't work if I try to buy some fish and chips.....
  • Jan 14 2012: I think WE should be truth vigilantes.

    As to newspapers they should be too. But even if they are, newspapers (not to mention other media) spread truth too late.

    Of course, nobody can be everywhere at all times. We have to have the initiative to tweet, text or email someone with first hand information. Better if they are witnesses.

    It's not about how corrupt or true information from media should be. It's about fine tuning how we pass on or receive information. We have the resources for a global community. Contact someone you trust then confirm what the paper says.

    If your neighbor got robbed, would you wait for the thing to land on your lawn?
    The paper should be truthful but it obviously should not be the primary source of information.

    Get on your feet and find the truth. Don't pay a writer to do that for you when you can do it yourself.
  • Jan 14 2012: Responding to Mr. Brisbane's question, "Is it possible to be objective and fair when a reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?" All critical thinking separates facts from beliefs where facts are indisputable and all who view agree. Facts are, therefore, objective. A reporter cannot correct one fact over another, but a reporter can correct inaccurate beliefs by introducing facts. It seems too many reporters stoke inaccurate beliefs by failing to dig for the facts, omitting facts altogether, or introducing their own beliefs into their report of events.
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    Jan 13 2012: Absolutely. The initial purpose of newspaper was to spread the knowledge necessary to live day to day to everyone you could get to read your paper. Now it's become more about selling the papers and ads than about selling the facts. I will say that consumers are to blame for this as well as the papers, for how else could they stay afloat if not for the money they garner from our willing hands.
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    Jan 13 2012: We already have enough of people's opinions with all the blogs and electronic media so I suggest the newspapers to be more like magazines ... more commercial and entertaining (meaning better shots, better writers, better editing and original ideas). Otherwise they would just become another electronic source of info ... paper publishing is still considered credible but for how long?
    • Jan 14 2012: Silvia, magazines are not newspapers, they serve different purposes or at least should do so. There is enough commercial things out there to keep one entertained. A good newspaper has all those things you mentioned (better shots, better writers, better editing and original ideas). The newspaper should not be taken for granted, like most of my generation (we in our 20's). Paper publishing will always be considered more credible, it has a face, an identity that you can hold accountable, while internet postings do not, you have no idea who is behind them and if you can ever find them or demand a justification for what they wrote, something I find to be very important now a days with all the hacks out there saying what ever they want without thought.
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        Jan 14 2012: Thanks for your opinion, Tiago. Seems to me that I dislike today's newspapers because they are really repulsive at least in my country.
  • Jan 13 2012: Truth, the word is a bomb in itself. There are realities that can change depending on one's perspective, however what Journalists should try and unravel is the truth according to no perspectives, the pure truth, the one that has a begining, a middle and an ending. When one searches for a murderer, there are many clues, various angles, but narrow it all down and you discover the truth, that so and so killed him/her. That is the turth newspapers should fight to uncover. Who is to blame for the economic crises, who caused 9/11, who is responsible for this and that and the other. Sooner or later it all comes down to a single reality, the truth, not something precieved. Truth, real truth is not based on one's reality but rather that common reality that binds us all together. What's wrong is wrong, what is right is right, now the punishment due to the reasons for such actions can differ according to one's reason for carrying such an act out.
  • Jan 13 2012: Vigilante. The word is based on self glorification, not truth or the search thereof. It focuses merely on what one precieves to be true, on what one believes in, without the global picture of things. New media has become in some way tied to this word Vigilante. So my answer is no. Newspapers should stand for the truth and not precieved ideas or beliefs.