Woster: The marketplace of truth and the dedication of reporting
I loved being a news reporter, but I don’t think I could function in today’s world of accidental and deliberate distortion and disinformation. I really don’t.
I worked 40-some years as a reporter, so I must have loved it. I didn’t have the greatest skill set, but I was literate and willing to work. I probably could have found another job if the newspapering gig had been too terrible. I never did.
I got up every morning during my reporting years, did interviews and read budgets and analyses and audits and then wrote news stories. I tried to be accurate with the facts and information available. With a few exceptions, I believed the stories I wrote were valuable to the public discussion of issues or policies.
Like nearly every other reporter I’ve known, I tended not to form opinions about the rightness or wrongness of arguments in any public discussion. I just wanted to obtain and report information that was accurate, that might contribute to public understanding
of an issue. People say, “I don’t have a dog in that fight.’’ Doubt me if you will, but as a reporter, I didn’t even have a dog, much less one that wanted to fight.
That’s how I learned the reporting business, as far back as basic news writing class as a sophomore at South Dakota State University. “You write the story,’’ the professor would say. “Let the reader figure out what to make of it.’’ That worked for me. I wanted to tell people things I thought might be interesting, even important, but I didn’t want to tell them what to think about those things.
That position got a boost during lectures by one of my professors in upper-level journalism classes. Paul Jess talked often about the “marketplace of truth’’ and the free exchange of ideas. Give people as much information as you possibly can on a subject, and they’ll be able to make decisions, he’d say. In other words, cast a wide net and present as much information as possible. I talk about that marketplace of truth concept a lot, perhaps, but it’s essential to the way I learned news reporting.
My first boss with The Associated Press emphasized that point by telling me that he and I, covering South Dakota state government, politics and the Legislature, didn’t write truths. We wrote facts. If people had the facts, most of them would arrive at a generally accepted truth in a given situation. We could disagree on how to respond to an issue but it mattered that we had the facts. Facts were objective, unchanging, and reliable.
I never dreamed we’d reach a time in our nation when millions of people seemed to value demonstrable facts no more than they did opinions, conjecture or outright fiction. How can a nation ever hope to have a rational discussion of important public policies if its members can’t even agree on a set of facts as a starting point? We’ve always had people who didn’t accept scientific facts. It just seems there are so many more such people these days, and the array of social media platforms give them a way to mass distribute the latest dispatches from their alternate universes.
Sometimes my stories would upset people when I worked the news. But even those people generally accepted the facts that were the stories’ foundations. Usually, critics simply didn’t like what I’d written. Now and then, of course, I got something wrong. When that happened, I rushed to correct the error. I didn’t double down on it, as everyone says these days.
I don’t know how I’d have functioned in today’s world of information. Reporters and editors working these days — a lot fewer than worked in my time — have so many more critics. The attacks seem relentless, angry and mean-spirited. I admire those in the news business who persevere. I respect them for their dedication to the cause of chasing the news.
Walter Lippmann said long ago, “There can be no liberty for a community that lacks the information by which to detect lies.’’ The people I know and have known in news reporting seek out that information. Their work matters.