Doug Anstaett
Kansas Press Assoc.
Guest Columnist
Noted Washington Post investigative reporter Carl Bernstein spoke at a Kansas Press Association annual convention in Lawrence in 2005.
Of course, it was quite a coup to land one of the two Post reporters credited with breaking the news of the Watergate scandal during the Nixon presidency.
Bernstein, one of my heroes in the industry, explained the goal of journalism in a handy, quotable way: “I think all good reporting is the same thing — the best attainable version of the truth.”
Think about that: the best attainable version of the truth.
In our profession, we rely on our sources to tell us the facts of a situation. We don’t (or at least very seldom) report from a first-person perspective. We have to find someone who was there, is aware of what happened or is speaking on behalf of the participants.
In other words, we have to rely on others to tell us the facts.
The lines are being blurred more and more every day by social media and other often unreliable sources of information.
One need only look at politics for proof that “truth” is often in the eye of the beholder. We’ve seen this attitude on display in our city halls and county courthouses, at the statehouse in Topeka and certainly at the federal level in Washington, D.C., as well.
Today, newspapers are bombarded by critics who don’t like our “best attainable version of the truth.” In fact, there is a growing trend for supposedly intelligent human beings to reject facts in favor of opinions.
We always have tried to separate fact and opinion by having editorial pages.
Our news pages, we say, are for us to display, as Bernstein argues, “the best attainable version of the truth.”
But other pages, clearly marked “Opinion,” “Op-Ed,” or “Our View,” are for our writers and those from outside the newspaper’s staff to express personal observations about the happenings in our society.
Earlier in my career (you know, back in the Dark Ages before the advent of social media), we used to give equal space to those with differing views. If we had an editorial with which someone took issue, we provided the space necessary for them to state why we were wrong. It might be a day or two after the editorial ran, or even much longer. Right or wrong, they had that right, and we defended it vociferously.
Now, however, those of you in the trenches get instant, 24/7 feedback. If you publish something that offends another’s sensibilities, they can fire up a Twitter barrage or a Facebook storm that dwarfs what letters to the editor used to show up.
And here’s another difference: we have to deal with those who don’t believe the “facts.”
Like one of the legislators said during the Kansas Open Meetings Act investigation of the get-togethers at Cedar Crest: “I know what you say the law is, but this is what I believe.”
Now, “beliefs” are substituted for facts; in fact, they seem to be interchangeable for many folks these days.
No … they are not.
Facts are facts. It’s our responsibility as journalists to make sure there is a bold line between facts and opinions.
Even when you are under the gun from critics, keep in mind that “the best attainable version of the truth” is always the goal. You can’t do more than that.
Doug Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association.