OPINION: ‘Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts’

Opinions seeping into contemporary journalism

By Al Lehmann

In one of the earliest iterations of television cop shows, Sergeant Friday of Dragnet was known for prompting his witnesses, “Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.” Presumably he was meant to understand how, in the heat of the moment and under stress, people can add all kinds of irrelevant impressions and value judgments to an account.

(A feminist might be excused for feeling resentful of the use of “Ma’am” in Friday’s line, suggesting that it is only women who are prone to such obfuscations. 1950s television tended to ignore political correctness, even while shying away from any language whatever that might suggest that we are sexual beings who occasionally use what might be termed “obscene” language.)

Imagine a witness to a crime adding details like, “He was evil-looking,” or “He was thinkin’ about killin’ me, too, I know it!”

Nonetheless, our imagined witness report above lends little or nothing to the kinds of verifiable details that might assist in solving the crime, such as the perp’s estimated height and weight, hair colour, noteworthy features such as scars, and so on.

Responsible newswriting is meant to embody Sergeant Friday’s priorities. The old W5H formula signifying who, what, where, when, why (if that’s observable), and how is meant to generate the fundamental details that constitute news. If a writer gets much beyond these, it’s likely he or she is drifting into the territory of opinion, material that belongs in the Opinion-Editorial section (Op-Ed) of the newspaper. Here exists room for speculation or for ideas about values such as what politicians should or should not do, and how readers should think about and react to issues of the day.

Contemporary journalism, characterized as it is by abbreviated story development timelines, reduced editorial staff, and the economic imperative of attracting readers (more easily done through sensationalism and shock value), has become tainted by sloppy writing and careless fact-checking. Further, when myriad internet publications generate hundreds of slants on the same story, many of them with the ulterior motive of influencing opinion, the rigorous task of searching out the truth of any story becomes exceptionally difficult. Yet this task can be the sine qua non of democratic citizenship.

Presumably in a society that protects free speech, every citizen is entitled to a voice. It is troubling, however, that so many voices among us are more determined to impose their personal preferences as truth than to explore to find the truth, however elusive that commodity might be.

Perfect objectivity as a news-writing ideal may be impossible, but “facts are brass.” Real events really happen. Every version or characterization of them is not equally believable. If readers must deconstruct every narrative as to its anti-feminist or sexist or class-oriented or racist biases (found in obscure word choices or occasionally not even present in the text), readers can be diverted from what the story is actually about into a dead-end melée of competing prejudices.

Some socio-political figures prefer this morass of what essentially becomes meaninglessness. When advocates like Kelly-Anne Conway argue that Trump’s fabrications are “alternative facts,” we know we are on slippery ground.

When racist generalizations and invented enemies are foisted on us as news, and propaganda is presented to us as facts, the very fabric of our democratic civilization is deliberately being unraveled. Sergeant Friday would be appalled.

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