I guess somebody could say I’m being pompous, that if everyone would just see it my way… And maybe there’s some truth to that. But there’s a difference between an inherent, emotional bias against something and really looking at it in a scientific sort of manner. I guess that’s one way my own thinking about some of this has evolved—and it goes back to my dad. He was a high school chemistry and biology teacher, and he used to preach scientific method sort of stuff. If you’re going to go at journalism the way I do, that there are injustices that need to be exposed, then you also need to do what scientists do and rigorously examine whether there’s evidence that shows that your hypothesis is wrong. These days I probably spend more time trying to read what the coal industry says about mine safety or air pollution or whatever than I do reading what environmental groups say about it. Because I want to understand what they’re saying.

True Facts, False Facts

I did this thing not long ago on my blog, I went to hear Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito at the Coal Association Meeting. She was waving some piece from some right-wing columnist about how the EPA was going to regulate spilled milk. It flows great with Republican ideas, you know, but it’s not true. And so I wrote about how she was doing this and it wasn’t true, and with the blog I can link to the Federal Register notice so readers can see for themselves. But at the same time, that guy’s column got linked to on a bazillion websites, and anyone that types “EPA and milk” in Google News, the first thing they see is his column. There’s a lot of noise today, obviously, and it is harder to cut through and get true facts out there. But it’s even harder to dispel or debunk false facts.
There is a group called Climate Ground Zero—they’re the ones doing all the tree-sitting and stuff against mountaintop removal. They have their own blog, and they are forever putting out information that’s just not accurate. I get bombarded with these e-mails: “Why won’t you report about this? Climate Ground Zero’s the only one that will tell the whole story.” Ten years ago I would have ignored it, but it’s out there on the Internet now. But if you spend all your time debunking that stuff then you’re not getting anything else done.

Part of the reason I wanted to do Coal Tattoo was that I saw the growth of pseudo-journalism about these issues, about mountaintop removal, climate change, the coal industry. I saw this pseudo-journalism taking over the public discourse. If real journalism is to survive, I think we have to engage with that stuff to a certain extent. So much journalism that’s considered the best of the best is so self-indulgent. Here’s my three-million-word, seventeen-part series on education, that I had six computer experts and three graphic artists and seven photographers and three librarians and two interns work on with me. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing a big project, but we’ve got to do more than that. And the same kinds of tools and skills that real journalists have to sort out what’s true and what’s not true, and who’s doing what to whom and who’s winning and who’s losing public policy debates—we need to deploy those things for products other than seventeen-part series that win the Pulitzer Prize. I keep trying to get our newsroom to stop calling blog posts “posts,” because I think it makes them these kind of lesser forms of journalism. And they ought not be.

The Why and the How

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.