Should The New York Times be a truth vigilante?
That simple question set off an amusing, and potentially constructive, conversation when The Times’ public editor posed it to readers.
That we’re even having this conversation is disconcerting. As New York University professor Jay Rosen wrote, “Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to.”
There’s a bright side. The resounding response from readers wasn’t just, “Yeah, duh.” They were incredulous that the question even had to be asked.
We do, for the record, consider ourselves to be truth vigilantes. Here’s what I mean by that: we believe we have an obligation to sort through public statements and determine the validity of them the best we can. It’s part of our core mission.
That was the case even before we launched the San Diego Fact Check. A couple of things have become clear to us since we started it. First, readers really like it. It’s become a very popular and recognizable part of what we do. And readers have found another value in these stories: they’ve become simple vehicles for explaining some of the city’s complex topics.
Second, it’s not easy. There are many shades of truth. It’s not often as black and white as we consider truth to be. Calling out something as false is often misconstrued as endorsing the opposing side’s ideology. And we catch the most amount of blowback from sources and public officials for our judgments. It can be uncomfortable, and for all the time and effort expended in it, you can see how it would slide down the list of priorities for news organizations.
But we really don’t like “he said, she said” journalism. We don’t consider ourselves stenographers for public officials or the powerful. We have an active responsibility to you to not pass along junk information. So we make it a priority to write with authority and determine, as best we can, what is true. (We have a set of rules to guide us as we do that.)
We’ve also found it’s easy for that work to get lost or forgotten in your daily rush. So here’s a quick sample of some of the best fact checking we’ve been doing lately:
• The point man for the Convention Center expansion went on television and said the $520 million project wouldn’t use money from the city of San Diego’s precious day-to-day budget, which covers basics like police and fire. That’s just not true. In fact, we decided, it’s Huckster Propaganda.
• County Supervisor Bill Horn got some ribbing from his colleague Ron Roberts for being awarded our Whopper of the Year honor for his incredibly bogus civil rights story. Horn had an, um, memorable reaction. Luckily, they televise these things. We caught that and a fact check of mayoral candidate and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis on a recent episode of Fact Check TV, which airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on NBC 7 San Diego.
• We got a renowned scientist to admit plainly: “I should have said it was an urban legend rather than a scientific fact.”
As I alluded to above, fact checking can be a time- and resource-intensive endeavor. Thankfully, the blog is sponsored by Donovan’s Steak & Chop House and our TV partnership with NBC brings some revenue in too. But that doesn’t cover all of our costs.
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