The Missoulian’s is running another editorial about the importance of the press and the necessity of shield laws to protect journalists. It’s a sentiment I agree with, though perhaps I might question the need to run the same editorial three or four times a year. The editorial stakes out a role for newspapers—to present factual information in a world full of “online rumors.” An admirable goal, but sadly, an incomplete one.
To remain relevant, newspapers need to do more than present the facts of an event. They need to search to uncover the truth. It’s one thing for the Missoulian to criticize Internet rumors, or the Great Falls Tribune to run a pathetic attack on bloggers, or the Independent Record mocking blogs as glorified diaries when they run hard-hitting stories about roast beef, but it’s another entirely for them to do their jobs, informing the public in a meaningful way.
What do I mean? I mean researching claims made by politicians in debates and advertisements. The recent debate between Governor Schweitzer and Senator Brown featured several sharp exchanges about economic growth, unemployment, and oil production. Given the specific numbers cited in the debate, either Schweitzer or Brown had to be lying or misinformed. Since the debate, that story has not appeared. The news story about the debate was factually accurate; the problem is that it didn’t come anywhere close to providing the truth.
If media sources are going to tout the importance of journalistic shield laws, they need to do more than record events. They need to do the research and analysis that will make us all better informed. It’s great that the Missoulian plans to protect its readers from false rumors, but helping them see the whole truth is much more critical mission.