Journalism’s Responsibility?

In a recent blog post at Political Animal, Steve Benen addressed the decision of the Washington Post to run an op-ed on climate change written (okay, probably ghost-written, since she’s given no hint that she’s familiar with the English language) by Sarah Palin.

The problem isn’t just that the paper published another right-wing piece from someone who’s obviously clueless — note, the WaPo published a similarly foolish Palin op-ed in July — it’s that the piece is factually wrong. The paper has a responsibility to publish content that informs its readers. Obviously, with “opinion” pieces, the standards are slightly different, but that does not give the editors license to run claims that are patently, demonstrably false.

Marc Ambinder had a very strong post, reviewing Palin’s claims, point by point, which is worth checking out. But also don’t miss Media Matters’ piece, which notes that the Palin op-ed even contradicts the Washington Post‘s own reporting.

This assertion raises an issue that is becoming increasingly important: what is the obligation of so-called “mainstream” journalists to fact-check what they print? On the one hand, as Benen acknowledges, this is an opinion piece, and clearly labeled as such. On the other hand, one of the concerns voiced about the imminent demise of newspapers is that readers will be deprived of genuine journalism, which is expensive to produce in large part because journalists are expected to engage in fact-checking and verification of claims they publish.

The Washington Post regularly runs columns by George Will–who clearly does not choose to believe the science of climate change–that contain demonstrably false factual claims. On rare occasion–VERY rare–they’ve later apologized. (Generally, only after the outcry from the scientific community was deafening.) 

I write op-eds, and I would be indignant if my editor (who virtually always disagrees with me about policy choices) changed my columns. On the other hand, I make strenuous efforts to ensure the accuracy of factual assertions, and to be clear about what parts of my columns are based on evidence and which parts are my opinions.

The fractured nature of our media environment makes it much too easy to dismiss ALL news sources as unreliable or biased. The most important argument for “real” journalism–i.e., not talk radio, not shock jocks, not panderers/water-carriers like Fox News and the rightwing/leftwing blogs–is that they are the best source of objective information. (Objectivity, by the way, is different from “balance.” If 99 percent of observers agree that the object before them is a cup, balance requires finding the one delusional individual who insists it is a plate. Objectivity requires the reporter to call it a cup.) If we can’t depend upon the mainstream media to fact-check what they print, what becomes of that argument?