Beyond the Facts, Ma'am

Edward R. Murrow epitomizes the era of the honest, ethical, and  "just the facts" newsman.
In the 1950’s, the television series Dragnet added the phrase "just the facts, ma'am" to the national lexicon. The show’s main character, Sergeant Joe Friday uttered the phrase only a few times in the series’ run but it became long-associated with the detective’s straightforward approach to getting to the truth. “Just the facts” has since made its way into how many other industries operate, including journalism. While there is a place in the field for simple reporting of information, the economic and technological climates have diminished other aspects of the journalism that require research and storytelling, leaving today's journalists scrambling to compete with the internet and leaving important stories in the dust.

The industry-wide shift toward less journalists churning out more stories, to compete with the speed of online news, no longer allows for long form, research-based writing. Left behind, due to this trend, are the stories that require a closer look: the complex issues of our day. Because of this, meaningful coverage of politics, religion, economics, and other social issues only get superficial treatment and opportunities to advance liberty in those areas are missed.

More readers have turned to online
outlets in lieu of traditional news.
In a 2004 interview with Wired magazine online, veteran Silicon Valley reporter Dan Gilmore spoke of the shifts in modern journalism and the effects that they’ve had on the industry. “The fabled ‘first draft of history’ -- the part journalists had pretty much reserved to ourselves -- was now dispersed more broadly, and in a way that was suddenly much more obvious and meaningful,” he said, speaking of the impact of bloggers. “The audience was helping to write that first draft, in something close to real time, adding first-person accounts and nuance to what the professionals were doing.” Gilmore drew these conclusions over six years ago and what he posited then has only become even more obvious since. With the advent of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, the foothold that bloggers and online news sites like The Huffington Post have in journalism has gotten deeper.

Pew Research Center June 8-28, 2010.
According to a June 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, total American news consumption is up 22.8 percent since 2000 but the report uncovers more curious findings. Since 2004, the percentage of people who report getting their news online increased by 10 percent - from 24 to 34 – while those who reported accessing it via traditional sources (radio and newspapers) dropped by nearly the same amount. The media mainstay television stayed consistent above 50 percent. These numbers suggest strongly that readers and listeners are moving online for their news. And why shouldn’t they?

According to a recent study conducted by a Yahoo research group on the reliability of information “tweeted” via Twitter, it was found that “when false rumors entered Twitter, about half of the tweets related to the information denied it.” In addition, “When the researchers studied tweets about rumors that were later confirmed to be true, they found that less than 1[percent] of tweets about that information denied it.”

The picture is becoming clear that the traditional practice of “just the facts” journalism is more popular from - and may be better generated and propagated by - non-journalism professionals online. For its speed and what the Yahoo research refers to as a “collaborative filter,” online news could be the future of simple reporting. With much of the news read generated from a few wire service reports and the staff of newsrooms having shrunk by an estimated 25 percent, it certainly seems that way. Given the trend, it is catastrophic to the future of the journalism industry and its goal of disseminating truth that the field continue to cling to a now broken model.
"In the spider-web of facts, many a truth is strangled."
Despite the seeming death of a facet of journalism, the field is needed more than ever to make sense of information in the now crowded marketplace. What journalists do and how we do are is still hot commodities that could and should be applied to more innovative and nuanced storytelling. We should let social networking and online news have just the facts because facts without context and measured interpretation are relatively meaningless.

Modern American poet and novelist Paul Eldridge said, "In the spider-web of facts, many a truth is strangled." Sometimes the truth found in information is as simple as who, what, when, where, and how but as it relates to the most complex issues of our day, often it is not. If journalists are to continue advancing liberty through their work, we will have to remove ourselves from the hamster wheel that newsrooms have become and place an emphasis on in-depth, research-based reporting that makes complicated data accessible to the average consumer.

It’s a point being made abundantly clear, most recently by the Columbia Journalism Review. The CJR’s December issue featured an article entitled “Journalists Need to Do the Math” where the writer argued, “When reporters don’t understand constitutional rulings, genetic research, and fundamentals of statistics, many big stories go unbroken. We’re still feeling the repercussions of inadequate statistical and economics knowledge among reporters who covered the banking crisis.” The story quotes Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee who recently stated the need for research-based, data-savvy journalism. “These are the people whose jobs are to interpret what government is doing to the people,” he said, speaking of journalists.

The foundation of a free society is a free and equipped professional press. Without the important information disseminated by the media, the public is rendered defenseless to manipulation and misinformation. There are many challenges to the old “just the facts” reporting of yesterday. No longer is the public interested in sitting before the haggard faces of trusted newsman or carrying newsprint under their arms but there is still a place for the truth. By dedicating the energies of today’s newsrooms to research-based, investigative journalism, the journalists can begin to work in tandem with online reporters and highly responsive social media outlets. What has been considered a crisis in the industry is an opportunity, freeing journalists from simple reporting to provide in-depth investigation and analysis of complex issues.