Popular Epistemology

Back when we were in journalism school, back when it was still a career you could expect to exist when you retired — hell, back when you could expect the world to outlive you — the most important class we took was libel law.

Or, as we called it: How to keep your publisher out of trouble. Those deep pockets they’re coming after aren’t yours, man.

The benchmark was 1964’s Times v. Sullivan, interesting in itself for its glimpse into the civil-rights era, but operative for the profession in what libel ultimately amounts to: Not just getting facts wrong, but “reckless disregard of their truth or falsity”.

Reckless Disregard has been the bumper sticker ever since. It’s a perfectly turned expression for the purpose, commanding a good-faith effort to get shit right. And, if you take it to heart — as we did — it entails not just factual accuracy, but representing the story, the whole story, or at least your best understanding of it. That means getting at the reality of the story you’re telling, not the “both sides” of an issue.

Yeah, it can be Rashomon out there sometimes, but that’s just the job.

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