Editor's Note (August 2018): Honest Debate

The line is blurring between fact and opinion, and it’s frightening


Published:

IT WAS AN INTERESTING and informative read, I thought. ProPublica published an article by a reporter who covered the gang MS-13 for a year, meeting the families of its victims and the children—many members are brought in as high schoolers—it recruits. You hear a lot about MS-13 these days as a pressing reason to build a wall, or justification to detain or deport fellow human beings without due process. I’ve heard the argument from family members, and so after I read this article, debunking the most common talking points about MS-13, I decided to send it to one of them. 

My family member would be interested in this information, I was certain. It was indisputable, first-person evidence—everything you’re trained to look for in middle school when researching a project.

It never even crossed my mind that something written by a journalist who spent hours and hours over months and months meeting these people, in real life, could be dismissed as anything but fact. When I saw the response to my email, my heart sunk. The subject line was “ProPublica,” and the body of the email was a link to a website called “GroupSnoop,” stating that ProPublica had ties to the “most extreme liberal ideologues.” 

The homepage of GroupSnoop reads this: “The National Center for Public Policy Research publishes GroupSnoop. The National Center is a non-profit communications and research foundation that supports free-market and pro-Constitution approaches to today’s public policy problems.”

Meanwhile, the about page of Pro­Publica, in part, reads this: “ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. We dig deep into important issues, shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust—and we stick with those issues as long as it takes to hold power to account.”

Part of what the site “debunking” ProPublica wrote was true; ProPublica is funded by some major Democratic donors. It’s also funded by readers who value investigative reporting. The editorial staff, however, is bipartisan—the editor came from the Wall Street Journal, and ensures that there is a wall between the board of directors and the newsroom. The nonprofit has brought us important reporting—Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, even—including a database of medical professionals and how much money they have taken from drug companies. My family member sent me another link later, a site similar to the first, annotated with reference numbers and a list of links at the bottom to make it appear researched. Nearly every one of those annotations linked to a source within the same site. 

To me, it’s clear which website is trustworthy. I have an unfair advantage, though. My career has been a lesson in recognizing what is fact and what is a spin—whether from politicians or public relations professionals. When sites present themselves as dependable but subtly back up their “facts” with opinions, it can be hard to see the difference. 

As journalists, we’re trained to follow the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Our job is to lay out the facts, and encourage readers to take away their own conclusion based on those facts. Don’t tell people what to think; good reporting and information-gathering will give them the power to think on their own.

But the game has changed. Many new—and some old—media outlets are abandoning this mantra. Instead of show, don’t tell, it’s become yell. Finger-point. Lay out your opinion as if it is fact, because simply reading and believing is much easier than taking the time to understand.

I thought about this exchange as I edited our feature package on the wave of change millennials are bringing to this city.

With influence comes responsibility, whether that influence is on the pages of a magazine or through hearts on Instagram. Here, Sarah Crosland invites readers into the world of the city’s biggest social media personalities. Why have we come to trust people on the Internet more than the news sources that have guided us for centuries? 

Perhaps it’s because these influencers don’t feel like strangers spewing numbers at us. They feel like friends, letting us into their (edited, of course) lives and giving us advice on what to wear, where to eat or travel. They’re not taking sides in the information war that’s raging in this country. 

Greg Lacour, in his feature on the generational shake-up on City Council, shows us first-term, under-40 councilmembers Larken Egleston and Tariq Bokhari. One is a Republican, and one is a Democrat. They host a podcast, R&D In the QC, and on it, they’re able to have conversations that challenge one another’s viewpoints and sometimes soften their own. They discuss facts—statistics, examples, costs—of the issues the city is facing today and counter each other with more facts, not distractions or political plays. Sometimes, you’re not even sure who is with which party. By the end, you’re enlightened without the overwhelming stress that comes from watching cable news these days. The co-hosts even seem to like each other. 

You see a lot of finger-pointing at millennials these days, too, and it’s a millennial thing to do, a podcast. But it might be the most adult thing we’ve seen in Charlotte in a long, long time. It’s the way political debates should be: show, don’t tell. Let me explain the research that makes me feel this way, the reasons why. No exclamation points needed. Debate is only healthy when it is based in fact, and R&D In the QC gives me hope that we haven’t forgotten this.

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