Scott Detrow had a terrific story today about Donald Trump's appearance at a Black church. The pastor called Trump on the carpet for attacking Hillary Clinton when he had promised not to be partisan. Trump later attacked the pastor and misstated key facts about what actually happened.
Why was this story terrific? Scott was one of a handful of reporters in the church to actually witness what happened. By being present he was performing the highest function of journalism: To witness and report. Scott's eyewitness account of what happened is the basis for most of what you have read and heard about this event. Not just on NPR, but in many other reports that relied on Scott. This has allowed millions of Americans to form their own opinions about the event. That's our job. We give citizens the information they need to make the choices a democracy asks them to make. We should not be telling you how to think. We should give you the information to decide what you think.
Scott did that and we are proud of him. Now a number of people have asked us why we didn't call Trump a liar. A professor named Jay Rosen actually asked why we didn't call Trump a "lying son of a b****." Others, like Amy Bradley-Hole, a fashion editor and blogger, asked the question more calmly.
It is a fair question. So here is why.
We want everyone to listen to us and read us. We want our reporting to reach as many people as possible. It is a well-established piece of social science research that if you start out with an angry tone and say something a listener disagrees with, they will tune out the facts. But if you present the facts calmly and without a tone of editorializing you substantially increase the chance that people will hear you out and weigh the facts. That is why the tone of journalism matters so much. We need potential listeners and readers to believe we are presenting the facts honestly, and not to confirm our opinions.
We aren't the first to recognize this. Indeed, John Adams introduced this idea into the American conversation before the revolution. He famously (or infamously) represented the British soldiers who fired on a crowd in what became known as the Boston massacre. Most people in Boston wanted to denounce the soldiers and execute them. But Adams saw it differently. In the course of the trial he presented the facts to show that the crown and the government in Great Britain were to blame — not the soldiers. "Facts," he said in his summation to the jury, "are stubborn things." That approach of patiently adding up the facts led directly to the growing support for the revolution. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence was presented as a submission of facts to a candid world.
It is not overly sweeping a thought to say this is a nation built on a faith in facts. At NPR we still hold that faith in facts.
We doubt that you, our audience, needs us to characterize people, least of all presidential candidates. You can hear the facts in Scott Detrow's account and decide for yourself what the facts say about the candidate. The more we inflame our tone, the less people will listen. What we need these days as a network, and as a country, is for people to listen more.