Truth in the digital age

It was a slow Saturday afternoon in the newsroom of the Washington Daily News. This was the fall of 1956, and the News, a Scripps Howard tabloid, published six days a week but not Sunday. When the last Saturday edition was off our hands, the rest of the day could be mighty quiet. 

A sub-editor on the city desk took a phone call. A man had driven onto Key Bridge, stopped his car, gotten out, leaped nearly 100 feet into the chilly Potomac River and drowned.

Hanging up, the editor spotted me and told me to go see what was going on. I was only a copy boy, but what the heck — this was Saturday afternoon. 

I caught a cab, rode out to Key Bridge and talked to a policeman, picking up a few more scraps of information. 

Full of self-importance, I phoned the city desk and told the sub-editor what I’d learned. He stopped me with a question: “Did the guy leave his keys in the ignition or take them with him?” 

That was one of the few lessons in journalism I ever got and one of the best. 

The Daily News, now long defunct, was no great shakes as a newspaper, but the people who worked there were professionals intensely concerned with getting the facts in the belief that even a seemingly trivial fact might shed light on the mysteries of human behavior. 

Facts were the coin of the journalist’s realm, cherished and indispensable. 

The theme for this year’s Vatican-sponsored World Communications Day was announced Jan. 24, the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, who is the patron saint of journalists. The theme for the June 5 event is “Truth, Proclamation, and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” That’s a mouthful, but at least the focus on digital media makes sense. Digital is where the action is these days, and the emphasis on truth is a reminder that, whatever else digital media may be, they’re not a realm of fact but opinion. You say your piece, I say mine. In much of this egalitarian media world, one version of truth is as good as another. 

Perhaps the assault on the ancient elitism of print journalism is for the best, but what’s been gained in self-esteem has been lost in the all-important matter of putting people in touch with reality as only facts and the reporting of facts can do. 

This isn’t new — newspapers have been moving this direction for three decades or more — but now the bloggers have made it a matter of high principle. 

And it comes at a price. A Gallup poll last year found 57 percent of Americans saying that they don’t trust journalists to report the news fairly. The shift away from facts and in favor of opinions surely has something to do with that. 

The handling of last month’s Tucson shooting tragedy in major sectors of the media was a case in point, offering as it did a worrisome glimpse into the fantasy world inhabited by some of our most prominent shapers of opinion, left and right. 

Hard on the heels of the tragedy itself, we were treated — at inordinate length — to self-congratulating moralizing at the expense of certain conservatives who were said, without any evidence of a causal link, to share the blame for the behavior of a mentally disturbed man. 

This was followed by yet more media moralizing about a noble leader summoning us all back to the civility and rationality we’d supposedly abandoned en masse. 

What we got, in short, was a deluge of opinion rather than fact. 

Opinions have their place in journalism, but they’re dangerous substitutes for facts. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. To read Pope Benedict XVI’s World Communications Day message, visit http://osv.cm/dQDF5b.