How to lie like a journalist

The editor-in-chief of Reuters writes about how his organization will be covering Trump.

He’s right: it’s not every day that the president says journalists are “among the most dishonest people on earth.” It’s also not every day that Trump says something true. But this apparently was one of those days.

Journalism is not simply the faithful reporting of events. Such a thing cannot exist because for each event there are countless perspectives. A limited number of perspectives have to be chosen, and for a report to be comprehensible to readers this number often cannot exceed one or two.

Not only is there no perfect way to choose a perspective, there is also no way to measure whether the best perspective has been chosen. But let’s suppose God endowed journalists with a supernatural ability to know which perspectives best reflected the reality of the universe, and for editors to determine precisely how much relative coverage journalists had afforded a given perspective. Would that mean news reporting would become fair and impartial?

Certainly not. Journalists still carry their own biases, and these find their way into the reporting via the choice of words and phrases, tone of voice, context, order in which facts or events are presented, and a myriad other tricks. (It doesn’t matter that some of these tricks are perpetrated deliberately and some by accident.)

Editors are supposed to intercept and correct for these biases, which would be a nice idea except that editors (even ones hypothetically endowed by God with the ability to perfectly detect bias) carry their own biases as well!

Reporting goes directly from journalists and editors to the public. By the time anyone else has their say, the report has already been released and a large portion of the audience will receive it blindly, without being aware of the judgment and bias it contains.

Any journalist will readily admit this problem. And yet here we have the editor-in-chief of one of the largest news companies on the planet claiming that his organization “reports independently and fairly,” and again that they report “fairly and honestly,” by “remaining impartial.” He claims that he and his organization “practice professional journalism that is both intrepid and unbiased.” (Emphasis added to all quotes.)

This is why Trump is right to call journalists among the most dishonest people on earth. Journalists are necessarily dishonest in their work, they are knowingly dishonest about their work, and their dishonest work has an enormous impact on what the world thinks and talks about, perhaps more than any other single profession.

Now would be a great time for a field-leading news editor to acknowledge this issue and provide ideas on how it can be addressed. (My suggestion has long been that journalists reposition themselves as imperfect, biased perspective-givers whose reports of events are delivered to third-party subject matter experts for analysis and review before they reach the public; but this would mean a cut in journalism’s prestige as Prophets of Truth, and we can’t have that can we?)

Instead, Mr. Reuters Editor-In-Chief doubles down on the lies. What does that tell you?

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