Rogers: Truth is, facts matter in opinion, too
The Colorado Sun devotes 8,094 words to its ethics policy — 25 to 30 pages if in a book.
The organization, a journalist’s vision of heaven, begins with “The Colorado Sun is in the business of truth.” Awesome, the highest of callings! Also, abstract and vague.
Academics, theologians and scientists share the same north star, after all. They just travel to far different constellations.
And what is truth? Absolute? A stack of the facts we’re able to find and confirm? Something more ineffable? Mine? Yours? Only God knows?
As for business, the Sun — like The Aspen Times, the Daily News, NPR, Aspen Journalism — turns to the practice to fuel the pursuit of journalistic truth. The quest must be funded somehow. From advertising, audience contributions, grants, philanthropy, stock purchases, institutions, even governments.
All these financial sources come with their own ranges of purity and land mines to consider, all very concrete, some dilemmas as knotty as “truth” and more painful.
But people and the bills must be paid to do the work of reporting, supporting the reporting, and delivering what is reported. The New York Times is flat wrong crowing about “all the news fit to print.” Even for them, it’s only the news they can afford to publish at enough of a profit to keep the Gray Lady going.
Right there in the masthead, they aren’t telling the truth.
The truth about The Truth is that it’s only an opinion.
I mean the truth from Big Bang to memoir, including journalism. Maybe especially journalism. Let’s be honest, shall we? That we can do with enough rigor and maybe a bit less grandiosity about ourselves.
Our clay is reality. Our craft is nonfiction. Our art is storytelling. We mine the evidence we can find and fashion our notion about what it all must mean into a narrative with a beginning, middle and end.
Readers and viewers would have it no other way, even as they huff and puff about some golden age objectivity and Walter Cronkite, who was not objective.
Give them a disordered account — the minutes of a council meeting, an hour of C-Span, say — and they’ll flee desperate for a story. Check any metrics you like.
Still, we know the difference between commentary and news, don’t we? In one the author aims to accurately report the events and issues and how selected observers perceive them. In the other, the voice and outlook more plainly are our own.
You have to wonder, though. Which comes closer to the truth?
TRUTH IN COMMENTARY
In those 8,094 words devoted to how The Colorado Sun will conduct its journalistic quest for truth, only 127 are given to opinion writing directly, following an aspirational section about impartiality in reporting the news.
Actually, the 127 are way more than needed to get across the point that opinion pieces must be factual, clearly labeled, and that they reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the organization, which seeks a breadth of viewpoints.
That’s because the entirety of the code of ethics applies to opinion as much as the rest of journalism, since the entirety of journalism is but degrees of opinion.
Journalism truly is about accuracy, honesty and fairness. Every one of us can accomplish each, and so we each are accountable, which you might call the hard chine of fairness. Harsh criticism and long prison sentences can indeed be perfectly fair.
I’m not making some Fox News case for calling blowhard pundits journalists or suggesting that what they do is journalism in any pure sense. Propaganda is journalism’s promises broken, the Gollum in the business of truth.
No, I’m doing the opposite, however drawn out, to let you know why The Aspen Times is handling opinion with maybe a bit more scrutiny now.
That is, assertions of fact need to match the actual evidence in commentary as well as news stories. So I am vetting and editing letter and column submissions for the very thing, and unapologetically.
I’ll fix inaccuracies, delete falsehoods, rewrite erroneous assertions of fact as clearly the writer’s opinion, yank out sections, reject whole pieces depending on how far they stray from evidence we can confirm to legitimate sources.
If the truth ultimately is a matter of opinion, honest opinion is also a matter of truth.
I know we love our polemical takes, our cutting words, our flights of satire and sarcasm to make our points. That we don’t always play nice and that outrage seems to be a deep human need. All this fits in the realm of commentary, often enough to my chagrin.
But we can at least try to stick to the truth.