A Matter of Fact, Not Opinion

All of us are watching as the world of communications changes faster than ever. Those of us in network news can look on these changes as threatening or as a great opportunity to reach our audiences in new ways—to come to our viewers, rather than making them come to us.

But, as dramatic as these changes are, I'm more worried about what we are providing our audiences than how we are providing it. We're facing the danger of changing the very nature of the “news” we're delivering.

In recent years, we've watched an explosion of news outlets—and in the opinions being expressed over many of them. That explosion is beginning to drown out our reporting of facts. The clash of ideas is coming to occupy the center stage, with the search for truth moving off into the wings. If this trend continues—if we follow those who would lead us in this direction—we could ultimately become irrelevant to our public.

Talk radio and daytime syndicated interview programs probably began the move away from reporting what is and toward talking about what ought to be. Fox News brought this format in the most effective way to television news. Now a host of others are following behind. As a result, we now see the same people moving from one channel to another, repeating the opinions that they've already expressed elsewhere.

There's nothing wrong with the expression of opinion—provided that it's clearly labeled for what it is. Opinion journalism plays an important role in our national discussion about important issues.

There are powerful economic and competitive reasons for the embrace of opinion journalism we're seeing. It's vivid, it's entertaining, and—let's face it—it's less expensive. The explosion of news outlets on cable and the Internet has helped drive many to opinion, which offers a quick, efficient and effective way to attract an audience.

Seeking to report the truth of a matter, on the other hand, can be hard work, expensive and inefficient.

I have two concerns about where we are headed. First, and perhaps most obvious, the more we fill up our reports with opinion, the less time we have for reporting facts. But there's a second, far more disturbing problem with the expansion of opinion in TV news. As it comes to predominate so much of what we call “news,” it can give our audiences the impression that everything they're seeing is some expression of someone's opinion.

Unless we're careful, we who are charged with reporting the news may ourselves lose sight of truth as our ultimate goal. We can end up in a world where, implicitly, none of us—not the audience, not the reporters—even believes any longer in the truth. Those of us in network news don't have the luxury of giving up on our goal of truth-telling.

If we had any doubt that the truth matters, surely that doubt was taken away by the events of 9/11. All of us were shown on that bright Tuesday morning that there are real-world matters that need to be addressed and that we need to get right. And when I say “right,” I mean the truth of what surrounds us. How we address this truth and our quest for it may affect not just our own lives, but the lives of our children and our children's children.

Excerpted from an Oct. 25 speech by ABC News President David Westin to the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.