'Seek out the facts ... Find the facts as they are'

Sept. 30, 2012
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Mike Oreskes
AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes gave the keynote address on Sept. 30 before the New England First Amendment Institute in Boston. Here’s the text of his remarks.

Good afternoon.

I am thrilled to be here with you this afternoon to chat a bit about the state and the future of journalism.

I am thrilled because the news is better than it sometimes may seem.

And one of the ways I know the future of journalism is bright is by looking out at all of you.

You are the future.

And I’d like to say a bit about why that is very specifically true of you as journalists committed to watchdog and investigative journalism.

That is why you are here. To hone those skills.

I am here to tell you that this is a good investment.

For you.

For journalism and for society.

I would like to say a bit about why investigative and watchdog journalism will be an essential part of the future of journalism.

But before we look toward the future, I want to first look back.  

What is it that makes journalism in general and watchdog journalism in particular so important?

Let me begin with a story about one of New England’s great heroes. 

A man who not only wasn’t a journalist, but complained bitterly about what was written about him.

No, he wasn’t a journalist. And yet in a very few words he summed up a belief that is at the root of what built this country, and all of Western democracy, and that makes journalism so essential to democracy.  

The man I want to talk about was a drafter of the Declaration of Independence. He was the principal author of the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and served as the first vice president and second president of the United States.

His name, of course, was John Adams.

I want to talk about a moment in his career before any of that.

A moment Paul Revere called “the bloody massacre in King Street.” 

It is now a stop on the Freedom Trail. What we all know today as the Boston Massacre

You know the historical events as well as I do. In October of 1768 the British crown sent troops to Boston to enforce the increasingly unpopular taxes and rules imposed on the good people of Boston.

Restiveness was growing.

On the fifth of March 1770 a crowd gathered at State and King Streets. A group of British regulars went into the street to control the crowd.

In the confrontation that followed, the regulars fired, and five colonists were killed.

The city was outraged. Eight British soldiers and their captain, Thomas Preston, were arrested and charged with murder.

At first they couldn’t find a lawyer. The people wanted vengeance, not justice.

But finally, an ambitious young lawyer agreed to defend them.

John Adams.

His was not a popular position. 

But in the trial of Captain Preston, Adams took the jury carefully through the events, arguing that the mob had attacked the soldiers and that Preston had not ordered his men to fire. Indeed, he had tried to restrain them.

After a week of testimony, Adams summed up his case to the jury by saying one of the most important things ever said about what we believe.

And this is it: 

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Facts are stubborn things ...

That is a very big idea. It is the idea behind the intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment.

And the Enlightenment’s greatest political achievement was, in fact, the United States of America, and in particular our Constitution.

Embedded in that Constitution, was the then dangerously radical idea that people could govern themselves without any outside authority, if they were given the facts, and a system to make decisions about those facts.

Facts are stubborn things.

The First Amendment guaranteed the right to a full, unfettered exchange of those facts and ideas.

And under that protection there eventually grew to be a craft called journalism, whose core commitment could not be summed up better than in those words of John Adams. 

So I will read them again.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

In other words, seek out the facts. Not the facts you might wish, or be inclined toward or even passionately hope are true. No, find the facts as they are. 

And you will be serving society in an important way.

John Adams’ specific point is that the rule of law was more important than the political passions of the moment and is thus a better protector of liberty in the long run.

Being popular is not the same as being right.

My point is the same, about journalism. The best journalism strives to watch over power and give citizens the facts that they need to form judgments about everything from picking a president to locating a sewer plant. 

Never in our history has this been a more important mission. Never have we needed the service of journalism more.

We live in an age where the stubbornness of facts has been undermined by an overload of information of questionable veracity,  and by a spreading belief that facts aren’t facts at all ... just building blocks in whatever argument you want to make for whatever wish or 
inclination or passion you carry.

So defending journalism is defending an old value, but not a tired one.

Nearly a hundred years ago, Walter Lippmann said that “there can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.” 

That is as true today as ever.

And not a bad definition of investigative and watchdog reporting.

In this age of change,  we have an important job to do -- as journalists.

We must define our core values so that we know what we need to hang on to, and so we can identify what we can change, as we move from where we used to be to where we need to be.

You are keepers of those core values. Facts. Verified. Truths revealed not because we wish them to be truths, but because the facts we have gathered and verified show them to be true.

That is what you do.

But will you continue to be able to do it in the years ahead? 

Or is this wonderful program upon which you embark this week just a sentimental journey on your road to a job in public relations?

We all know this has been a tough time for journalism and for journalists.

There are those who don’t believe in what we do, or don’t believe we really do what we claim to do. 

And it is sometimes hard for people to understand the difference between journalism and the avalanche of opinion and argument that buries us every day.

Blathering about perceptions is different from verifying facts.

We journalists have to be more aggressive in arguing for the value of what we do. And we have to be more vigilant than ever to ensure that we live up to the values we espouse.

And that is only part of our challenge.

You know the rest. The underpinnings of the businesses that have been our core support for more than a hundred years have been eroded by the huge shifts brought about by digital technology.

Those changes are affecting everything we do.

I can promise you that if you want to work as an investigative or watchdog reporter in the future there will be places for you to do that. I cannot promise you these will always be the same places you did this work in the past, or that you will do the work in the same way.

Tools are changing. Presentation is changing. Audience attitudes and attention are changing. Employers may be changing

But the value of investigative and watchdog journalism is not changing. Or maybe I should say it is changing. It is becoming even more valuable, and that is why I am optimistic that it is part of the future.

Let me explain.

We used to argue for investigative reporting as a civic duty. Something we were proud of and believed was important to society. Something publishers even tolerated because they believed it was a responsibility that came with the constitutional protections that had helped 
their businesses to thrive.

I want to pause here to say there was no more shining example of this commitment to what we do, no greater champion of a news organization's civic duty to courageous journalism than Arthur O. Sulzberger. We lost Punch yesterday. But we must not ever forget what he did to support journalism. 

As Punch Sulzberger showed, civic duty is a noble thing.

I believe in it deeply. But it is unlikely our civic duty sold many newspapers, and it certainly never sold many ads.

So when I say something new is happening, something that makes investigative journalism more valuable, I mean it, as Joe Biden might say, literally.

Investigative reporting is emerging as one of the ways to achieve what is now required for success in the new world of media.

What is it that is now required?

In those good old days we sold our news in a package. We called it a newspaper. You got your crossword. Your comics. Your sports and your muckraking all together.

Frankly, it included a lot of bad with the good. And by making the reader buy it as a package we covered a multitude of journalistic sins, less than stellar work, boring or pedestrian presentation. Take it or leave it. 

In the new world every piece of journalism has to stand on its own. So it is essential that it stand out in the crowd. A crowd even more jostling and competitive than when newspapers fought shoulder to shoulder on Boston’s newsstands.

Journalists and media executives have come up with lots of words for this:

Unique. Engaging. 

At the AP, we have adopted the word “distinctive” to name what we are demanding of our journalism.

Journalism that stands out.

Journalism that is not a commodity.

Journalism that doesn’t read or sound or look like everything else you have been seeing hearing and reading.

Well, you see where I am going.

Certainly there are a variety of ways to get distinctive journalism. And we can’t be just one thing, in any case.

But clearly investigative and watchdog reporting are crucial ways to create journalism that is unique, that stands out, that is distinctive.

Investigative reporting is still a civic duty.  We need it more than ever. That is of course why foundations and other private sponsors have thrown their money behind investigative journalism organizations ... national and local.

But civic duty isn’t all there is ... there is a business imperative now to stand out ... and investigative and watchdog reporting are good and honest ways to do that.

Values matter.

But the strong value of investigative and watchdog reporting will do a lot to guarantee their future.

You can already see this happening.

Beth Knobel, a media studies professor at Fordham University, has been studying the state of watchdog reporting. The picture isn’t perfect. She found a tendency toward quicker enterprise versus deeper investigations. But overall, she concluded, “editors are trying to maintain 
their newspaper’s commitment to public affairs reporting despite all socioeconomic challenges.” 

Professor Knobel has just begun her studies and it will be interesting to see what she concludes as she widens the scope beyond the few newspapers she has looked at so far.

For example, news services, including the place where I work, are investing far more in investigative work than they used to. Not just the AP. But Reuters and Bloomberg, too.

Did I mention we won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting? 

That Pulitzer of which we are immensely proud was for looking at the activities of a local police department...The New York Police Department is a BIG local police department to be sure. But local, nonetheless. 

At the AP, we see the crucial importance of great local investigative reporting. We are trying to do this and so are others.

You can see this in interesting ways.

In a number of cities -- New Orleans and Detroit, for example -- where the newspapers have cut back, investigative reporters have moved to the local television station, the American Journalism Review pointed out the other day.

And just as newspapers aren’t just in print anymore, neither are broadcasters just in broadcast.

Investigative reporting helps drive the TV stations’ websites and their newscasts.

Which leads to one of the discussions I am sure you will be having in the next few days.

What does all this change mean for you?

I am convinced we can not only preserve but expand investigative and watchdog journalism in the years ahead.

But to do this we must be ready to adapt it. 

Adapt it to different platforms of distribution.

Adapt it to the way the public is consuming news now.

Some of the changes are obvious and well known to you.

Data is an increasingly powerful and vital part of reporting.

Social networks are a way to reach both sources and audiences.

The new distribution platforms -- on tablets and smartphones and even that legacy medium, the World Wide Web -- put even more premium on visual elements. We need to think about visual as an essential part of our reporting.

My colleague Jeff Donn will be with you later in the week. Did I mention he was a finalist for a Pulitzer?

Jeff did extraordinary work describing America’s aging nuclear power plants. I have nothing but admiration for his powerful and well-reported prose.

But two of the most important elements of his work did not involve words.

One was data-driven maps showing the population growth around nuclear power plants.

And the other, perhaps his biggest scoop, was photographs revealing the rusty innards of nuclear power plants. Photos that had sat unseen in files at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission until Jeff forced their release through dogged reporting and freedom of information filings.

Words and pictures, video and visualization all reinforce each other and tell stories in new ways.

But in adapting to all this change we must be unbending in maintaining our basic standards.

All these elements are of value because they rest on the most important technological innovation in the history of journalism: 

Shoe leather.

Sara Ganim, whom you are going to hear from shortly, said she couldn’t conduct her investigation of the Sandusky case over Twitter. It took knocking on doors, she said, it took looking people in the face and telling them that she knew they were not telling her the truth.

Solid reporting. Solid sourcing. Thoroughness. Fair mindedness.  These standards have always mattered. These are the standards we must hold on to, even as we change and adapt in so many ways, Because times of change are when standards matter most.

And I find no better summation of our core standards than John Adams’ summation to the jury in 1770:

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Oh yes, Captain Prescott and six of his men were acquitted based on the appeal to fact by John Adams. 

By winning the acquittal of the soldiers, by defending an unpopular position, Adams in fact exposed a larger truth, just as he had intended. He was able to shift the blame for the killings from the soldiers to the king and Parliament for sending the soldiers in the first place.

The presence of British troops went on the list of grievances that led ultimately to the American Revolution, and to the creation of the first nation based on the idea that citizens, armed with the facts, could govern themselves. 

Facts are stubborn things, indeed. 

So go find the facts. 

Follow them where they take you.

Don’t worry about being popular.

Report the truth. 

And shame the devil.

Thank you.

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