To quote Jonathan Foster, a former lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s department of journalism, “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the f***ing window and find out which is true.”
Every story has at least two sides, but not every side of a story is equally valid. In pursuit of the truth, journalists must have the clarity to know which sides of an issue are not supported by facts and have the integrity to report on them as such.
Take, for instance, the issue of climate change. Scientists are in near-universal consensus on the core aspects of it; namely it is caused by human activity, is continuing to get worse and needs to be tackled head-on before it causes irreparable damage to our planet. Climate change is also a stalwart of cable news debate topics. Networks often give equal time to a scientist backed up by decades of research and an opposing political operative pushing an agenda.
Framing the issue this way doesn’t just obscure the truth, it legitimizes ideas with no basis in fact. Reducing issues of fact to a two-sided debate gives the false impression both sides have equally-legitimate views. “Fair and balanced” journalism isn’t just about fostering discussion on contentious issues, it’s also about knowing when the facts show a disagreement is settled and continued debate is unproductive.
The same applies to ideologies like white supremacism. Feigning neutrality between justice and injustice serves no productive purpose, it only legitimizes hateful views and gives them a platform.
While facts must reign supreme in news coverage, the real world doesn’t fact check itself. Nonfactual statements range from benign to malicious. Good journalists — and good consumers of news — need to know the distinction between opinions, inaccuracies and falsehoods. All three need to be treated differently to prevent mistakes from slipping through the cracks and to prevent bad actors from taking advantage of the system.
Opinions are just that: opinions. If someone from Texas says it’s cold outside and someone from North Dakota disagrees, neither is more right than the other. Opinions can’t be presented as fact and can’t be debunked, they’re just a measure of what a person thinks. Opinions can be harmful when they contain hateful rhetoric like racism or homophobia, and journalists need to be careful not to amplify these messages.
Statements that don’t line up with objective facts are inaccuracies. Someone might have misspoken, misremembered or just not have been knowledgeable on a topic. Inaccuracies should always be clearly corrected in reporting, but assuming malicious intent probably isn’t the best course of action.
Falsehoods are inaccuracies with intent. Lies. Someone knowing, or just not caring, what they say doesn’t line up with objective reality. Intent can be hard to determine, but if someone is trying to push a specific agenda or is in a position where they should know better, that’s a red flag. It is not a journalist’s job to provide a platform for someone to spread misinformation.
Falsehoods present a problem with public figures, especially politicians. Lying is newsworthy, but repeating the falsehood grants it some legitimacy. Providing context and evidence to disprove the lie must be the highest priority.
Failing to effectively do this has very real consequences. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump and his lie-riddled rhetoric rode a $5 billion wave of free media exposure straight to the White House.
Journalism at its core is about pursuing and sharing the truth, but framing every issue as a battle of two equal sides erodes this purpose. Journalism today must have the moral clarity to know when to let discourse play out and when the facts say enough is enough.