Getting the facts right Editorial
Stabroek News
October 27, 2001

"To argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to mis-state the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion... all this, even to the most aggravated degree, is so continually done in perfect good faith, by persons who are not considered, and in many other respects may not deserve to be considered, ignorant or incompetent, that it is rarely possible, on adequate grounds, conscientiously to stamp the misrepresentation as morally culpable and still less could law presume to interfere with this kind of controversial misconduct."

John Stuart Mill in his essay on Liberty.

A free press is vital to the maintenance of a democratic society but the price to be paid for this freedom is high. This is because much that is written or produced by media persons is at best imprecise and inadequate and at worst tendentious and biased.

Most media persons do not have the time or the space available or the resources to marshall all the facts and present them in a fair and balanced manner. Much of what emerges, therefore, to comply with the deadlines is selective, without adequate context, and incomplete. More could and should have been said to treat the topic fairly.

These are the limitations of the discipline within which the media operate. The ultimate expression of this debility is the soundbite which reduces the news to slogans without any valid content. But even the very best journalists operate within the constraints of space and time.

The true professionals, like the late I.F. Stone, do the necessary work, read the Congressional and other reports, study their topics, and can present a distillation of a news event that is balanced and in context. It is a demanding skill, comparable to the highest levels of achievement in other professions. As any experienced journalist or reader knows the report of a news event can create a more or less serious misunderstanding of what happened because of omissions, lack of context or background, a failure of comprehension by the journalist himself or herself, and not infrequently by an obscure or incomprehensible formulation of the issues by the person making the news or holding the press conference which is not later clarified.

So getting the facts right is difficult but it is essential to enlightened public debate as the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has emphasised. If the facts are wrong or inadequate it is impossible to draw correct conclusions. Habermas also argues that the ideal of rational, informed discussion of public policy and useful verbal communication imply a mutual commitment to reason and truth and if one or more parties to the debate participate in bad faith or rely on the use of pressure and intimidation there can be no honest or worthwhile discussion.

Free speech is a precious right but at the same time a deadly weapon. It can be used to defame, to subvert, to pollute the stream of public debate and even to strike at the foundations of democratic society. Journalists bear a tremendous responsibility and it takes a great deal of experience and an ongoing commitment to discharge it honourably. Ideally, one should give the readers the facts and leave them to think for themselves, good reporting should not be adjectival or argumentative. Though we may never fully achieve these ideals it is useful to have them before us.

Finally, it is valuable in reporting to have a sense of human fallibility and imperfection and a sense of what is possible. This comes from experience and maturity. Some journalism seems to be inspired by a kind of mindless utopianism which makes no effort to understand the complexity of problems that face government and other institutions and the difficulty of getting things done.