Facts trump perspective

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

I’ve made my living as a journalist for nearly 28 years now, starting as a 19-year-old sports editor at the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home.

Over the course of my career, I’ve covered everything from an elementary school spelling bee to an execution at a state prison.

I’ve written stories that most people viewed as “positive.” I’ve written stories that many people viewed as “negative.” I try not to think of any story by those definitions, because “positive” and “negative” depend in large part on individual perspectives. Say, for instance, police arrest a robbery suspect. Is that a positive story? After all, the case is solved and the police have done their job. Or is it a negative story? A crime has been committed and someone has been arrested. The police chief probably sees a positive story. The suspect’s mother probably doesn’t.

As a reporter, it’s not my job to determine whether the story is positive or negative. My job is to report the facts, as best as I can ascertain and verify them, and let readers draw their own conclusions.

Sometimes, the fact is simply that someone has said something. For example, if I report that Mr. Smith called Mr. Jones “an unrepentant scalawag,” I am most certainly not calling Mr. Jones names. I’m simply reporting that Mr. Smith did. And if I’m a halfway decent reporter, I’m contacting Mr. Jones and offering him a chance to respond.

Speaking of name-calling, I’ve been called a few over the years. During my time as managing editor of the daily newspaper in Pine Bluff, I was called a racist more times than I can count. Was that because I am an actual racist? Absolutely not. It’s because Pine Bluff’s population is approximately two-thirds black and occasionally we printed stories that some in the black community viewed as “negative.” When a black man was arrested for murder and we published a photograph from his arraignment on the front page, we were called “racists.” Never mind the crime. Never mind the dead victim. Never mind the impact on the community. As far as some folks were concerned, the only issue to be considered was race. That was their singular perspective.

On the other side of the coin, some white readers were incensed when I wrote a column merely suggesting that the local police might have been able to avoid shooting and killing a 107-year-old black man who was holed up alone with a gun in his bedroom. To many folks on both sides of that issue, it wasn’t about facts. It was simply about race. It was about their own perspective.

For many people, politics is a singular perspective. Some liberals will see a story about a liberal politician and consider it to be a “negative” story. Why? Because it doesn’t fit their perspective. Likewise, some conservatives will see a story that they believe is a “negative” reflection on their perspective and believe that the story is unfair. Not because it isn’t factual, but simply because it doesn’t align with their particular beliefs.

Real journalism isn’t about perspective. It’s about facts.

Over the weekend, Time magazine published on its website the text of remarks made by Bret Stephens, foreign affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, during the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Pearl, in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, was a Journal reporter who was kidnapped and later killed by Pakistani terrorists in 2002.

Stephens’ remarks came in the context of a much larger issue, but I’d like to highlight a portion of what he had to say:

“We honor the central idea of journalism — the conviction … that facts are facts; that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting; that truth is attainable by laying fact upon fact, much like the construction of a cathedral; and that truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.

“And we honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.”

Amen.