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Journalism Next Gen: Do Facts Still Matter?

February 17, 2010

An article written for the Opinion Writing Workshop by Beena Qayyum, Tarek Mounir, Francesco Guarascio and Amanda Wilson:

With the emergence of new media, the role of journalists has certainly changed. While traditional media placed an importance on objectivity – or “facts only” – many argue that analysis and opinion writing will become the main occupation of journalists. In this scenario, journalists must market themselves as a credible brand with opinions of their own.  But is there still a place for fact-based reporting? We believe facts still matter.

A main risk of analysis-only reporting is that fundamental facts might be lost when writers choose only the parts of the picture that support their own agenda. In journalism led by opinions, this is more likely to happen. Opinion-led journalism happens when a journalist has already decided on an angle of the story, before actually going and verifying all the facts. The story is driven in a certain direction.

But if journalistic work is led by opinions, we would have to redefine what journalism is. It becomes a kind of journalism that goes by the old adage: “Don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.”

Opinion-led journalism rather than fact-based journalism can sometimes be devastating. During the infamous trial of Michael Jackson for child molestation, the press coverage clearly implied that he was guilty before the court even made a ruling. As a result, he spent millions of dollars in out-of-court settlements, lost 16 years of his career, suffered public humiliation, and last year died a bankrupt, and probably sad, man. But after Jackson’s death,  the child involved said that he had “never been touched.” This is an example of how a story – and its scandal-obsessive analysis in the press – took over the real facts.

Facts matter. Analysis-only reporting could obscure factual reporting. In analysis-based reporting, editors’ discretion might take precedence over facts and compromise the whole story and, in the end, mislead the public.

One group believes that opinion writing increases the number of voices in the public debate, giving a wider perspective and allowing a plurality of voices in debates. Blogging, for example, is certainly important because in societies where there is not much freedom of expression, opinion allows more voices to enter the public arena and allows more people to see a side of reality that is not seen by the mainstream media. Provocative statements and insights often raise questions and start debates that can lead to positive change.

Still, many people want to form their own opinions based on facts rather than be fed the facts that have already been processed like partially-hydrogenated corn snacks.

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