Home > Journalism, OJR > Can journalists call a lie, a lie?
10 Dec

Can journalists call a lie, a lie?

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201012/1918/

For me, one of the strongest messages that got tweeted out from Newsfoo, a recent invitation-only meeting of the journo+tech minds, was one by Andrew Golis that said a major theme was “not just to report truth, but attack untruth.”

That goes to a question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: Has a journalist now, or ever, had the ability… the option… the support… or even time… to call a lie, a lie?

Clearly I am oversimplifying complex scenarios we report, but in certain cases when the opportunity arises do we have the courage to, you know, call bullsh*t on something?

We’ve all hear the interviews where we, as the audience, can tell the “expert” is just adding spin. But it feels like it’s only in rare cases where we hear the reporter push back. The notion of truthsquading is very much a part of our journalistic DNA, but lately I’ve been feeling that we haven’t been doing this.

So these are the questions bouncing around in my head: Is it a rarity? Was it always a rarity? What happens if you do or don’t call someone out? And, if it is a rarity, why? What keeps us from doing one of the most important responsibilities in our job?


NOTE: I’m not purposing to answer these questions with this post. I’m trying to figure it out as I write this. In fact, I am hoping you can help me by sharing your thoughts and first-hand experiences, as a reporter. Give me context by responding to these questions:

1- Do you think it is a rarity that a reporter calls a lie, a lie?

2- Outside from being rude, in today’s journalistic landscape, do you think a reporter could call an expert or source out? Why or why not?

3- Should reporters do this more often? Are they already doing it enough?

4- Have you ever been put in that position? What did you do and why?

Here are my answers:

1- I don’t think reporters are calling a lie, a lie enough. I feel like the rise of Wikileaks, the popularity of the Daily Show and the reliance of PolitiFact is primarily because we don’t do this enough. These diverse examples make the effort, or attempt to, do it in their own way and we rightfully value them for it.

2- I do feel like it seems tougher to do so… and there are a lot of factors in play here, in my opinion. From job instability to afraid of losing access, a reporter is under a lot of pressure to produce a “fair” piece under deadline.

Traditionally we’ve been trained that in order to be fair or seen as objective, we should include both sides. But I feel like people have figured out the game and are giving reporters the run around. We know reporters are smart and probably know they are getting the run around. We see this in politics, for example.

But we have to feed the beast. We’re doing more with less. And, if you can’t do it, there are countless aspiring journalists who will.

3- To me, like that tweet said, it is more important than ever to truthsquad for our communities. There is so much spin and hype out there and we are the only ones whose specific job is in the constitution to fight for an informed democracy.

But I don’t put it all on reporters… I look at their editors and their bosses. Those that are worried more about the bottom-line financially rather than the bottom-line journalistically.

Here’s a dramatic question I am hesitate to make: It took a year between the Watergate break-ins and the first set of related resignations, two years until Nixon resigned. Do you think your editors would give you the time today to look deeper into a break-in at a hotel?

There are some who are fortunate to have those editors and will say yes. There are far too many that would have to admit no.

4- Um, I have to admit that I am the socially awkward guy that has bruised relationships of all kinds by pushing back. I try to do so respectfully, mind you, but from asking if someone is evil to giving honest, direct feedback … well, I can’t help it. I’m damn lucky I found journalism is my profession.

I feel like I have to be honest with myself, with the people I’m interacting with (from sources to friends) and, most importantly, my community I am reporting for. And, I expect people to do the same to me… granted it’s painful and awkward.


Again, I know it’s rarely so black-and-white. But this question, this concept has been weighing heavily on my mind.

What is our responsibility when we are in the middle of people blurring the line between fact and belief. What should we be expect expected to do? Realistically.

Please help me explore this by answering the questions and sharing your comments. Hell, call B.S. if you think this premise is off too.

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  1. December 10th, 2010 at 19:16 | #1

    This is actually the second post on the topic I’ve seen today, the other being at Salon by Greenwald (http://j.mp/hkXVEL).

    As to your questions:

    1. I wouldn’t ever try to count the times that a lie is not called out as such. Mainly because I don’t have a supercomputer handy to deal with the calculations.

    2. “Could” is the operative word here. “Could” and keep that source talking? “Could” and keep their job? “Could” and have it survive the editing process? What it really boils down to is the management/editors. They’re the ones who have to create that environment. Though it’s a no-brainer to call it a “should” from an outside perspective, things have to change before it’s so simple inside the business.

    3. As the line goes: early and often.

    4. Once. It was a story on a racist club owner who used to try to corral anyone who wasn’t white into the back room and made frequent use of an entry dress code that changed depending on the complexion in question. I used the word “claimed” by most of his quotes, and presented the contradicting evidence immediately after, which included police reports, witness/victim accounts and video of him actually saying “n—er music goes in the back.” Why did I do it? Because he was in the wrong (read: a racist jackass) and his patrons might be interested to know where their money was going. That story never ended up getting published. Why did they do that? They determined that the evidence I had gathered was insufficient to warrant publishing what they referred to as “an accusation.” That was about 5 years ago now.

    What should we be expected to do? Get it in whenever possible and do all we can to make eds and publishers recognize that this is the job they signed up for.

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