Objective Reporting and Critical Thinking

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago this month, Sen. Joseph McCarthy stood before the Women's Republican Club in Wheeling, W. Va., and declared he had a list of 205 spies in the U.S. State Department. Newspapers and broadcasters dutifully noted McCarthy's sound of alarm and continued to repeat it in numerous variations over the next four years before finally realizing that there was no such list, at least not that McCarthy would produce.

It is easy with the hindsight of a half-century to censure both society and the press for the excesses of the McCarthy era. But the dilemma McCarthy presented is not so easily dealt with.

In the year 2000, the easy answer to the question of how the press should have covered the Wisconsin junior senator is that it should have recognized him for the sly manipulator he was and ignored him. Yet, in its day, the issue McCarthy plumbed was one of the most prominent and serious concerns on the minds of Americans. Considered in that context, we might well ask how many journalists today would refuse to accurately report facts or prominent claims relevant to a topic of compelling public interest?

The answer, which comes in some form almost every week, is few or none.

Many people find that fact a good reason to disparage or distrust the press - until, that is, it is their issue that comes into question. So, in a more modern setting, should a newspaper refuse to publish claims about rumors of cocaine use by George W. Bush, it might win praise for its good judgment from some quarters. But it would hear a loud cry of censorship and partisanship from others.

An objective press cannot escape this dilemma. One of our fundamental precepts is faith in the reader's ability to judge the significance and the veracity of the claims we report. Yet, we also have to use discriminating judgment when deciding whether and how to report on important topics. Faced with the choice between not reporting information that some people will find useful in assessing an issue and angering people who do not like the information, we often see our duty falling on the side of reporting.

Take as an example the Bob Collins plane crash. The question of whether lack of radar at the Waukegan Airport played a role in the tragedy likely will not be answered for months. …