Why We Consider Ourselves Truth Vigilantes

 

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.”

(Of course, plenty of people pass Fact Check muster. And we get stuff wrong too. When we do, we make it known, put the story on our corrections page and tweet it out.)

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.

Please consider a donation to keep this unique public service healthy and kicking.

Sincerely,

Andrew Donohue

Editor

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Andrew Donohue

Andrew Donohue
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12 comments
Hank Pfeffer
Hank Pfeffer subscriber

Corruption of truth has been ignored by the media too many times in exchange for invitations to the right parties. Expose the advertiser controlled news media too.

Hank Pfeffer
Hank Pfeffer

Corruption of truth has been ignored by the media too many times in exchange for invitations to the right parties. Expose the advertiser controlled news media too.

Pat Seaborg
Pat Seaborg subscribermember

Marcie (above) I was a HUGE fan of New West magazine in the 1970s and in my opinion one of the best magazines I ever read. I still remember an article that described what we would eventually call AIDS. Was so sorry to see you fold.

pcs
pcs

Marcie (above) I was a HUGE fan of New West magazine in the 1970s and in my opinion one of the best magazines I ever read. I still remember an article that described what we would eventually call AIDS. Was so sorry to see you fold.

Carrie Schneider
Carrie Schneider subscribermember

Considering that the NYT is responsible in part for driving the enthusiam for an unjust war an Iraq based on the reporting of now discredited information, asking themselves this question is long overdue. It's the main reason i can't bring myself to subscribe to an otherwise interesting paper.

Carries
Carries

Considering that the NYT is responsible in part for driving the enthusiam for an unjust war an Iraq based on the reporting of now discredited information, asking themselves this question is long overdue. It's the main reason i can't bring myself to subscribe to an otherwise interesting paper.

Marcie Rothman
Marcie Rothman subscriber

As a former fact checker, for New West Magazine in the 1970's,I learned to question everything a writer wrote, from the proper spelling and title of a person to checking a quote from Lillian Carter. Nothing beats first hand primary sources. And then it means questioning those facts. Donahue and staff do a good job at ferreting out misinformation. Keep up the good work.

mar
mar

As a former fact checker, for New West Magazine in the 1970's,I learned to question everything a writer wrote, from the proper spelling and title of a person to checking a quote from Lillian Carter. Nothing beats first hand primary sources. And then it means questioning those facts. Donahue and staff do a good job at ferreting out misinformation. Keep up the good work.

Michael Cargal
Michael Cargal subscriber

I haven't been able to find the exact quote, but H.L. Mencken wrote something like it is the responsibility of newspapers to protect us from hucketers and buncombe artists, and when they fail, which is usually, we are at their mercy.

Michael Cargal
Michael Cargal

I haven't been able to find the exact quote, but H.L. Mencken wrote something like it is the responsibility of newspapers to protect us from hucketers and buncombe artists, and when they fail, which is usually, we are at their mercy.