Former PG editor discusses truth in journalism


Brian Gentry | Contributing Editor

David Shribman discusses the importance of truth in journalism and how the field has evolved over time.

By Brian Gentry, Assistant News Editor

David Shribman, the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, first met former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh at Three Mile Island in 1979, shortly after the nuclear plant experienced a reactor meltdown. Shribman, still a budding journalist, interviewed Thornburgh in his office about the incident on-site.

“I was exposed to a lot of radiation, and that’s why when I drive through Squirrel Hill, all of your garage doors go up,” Shribman said.

The two met again Tuesday at a lecture titled “The Press, the Truth and other Endangered Species,” hosted by Pitt’s Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy at the University Club. At the event, which was also attended by Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and former Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, Shribman discussed the importance of truth in journalism and how the field has evolved over time.

Shribman has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Boston Globe throughout his decades-long career. While a columnist at The Boston Globe, he won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his political analyses in Washington. Most recently, he served as executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2003 to the end of 2018, when he stepped down to become a scholar-in-residence at McGill University in Montreal.

Shribman said he encounters questions about factual accuracy in the media daily, noting that when he was speaking at Northeastern University on Monday, he made it only five minutes before someone made a joke about fake news.

This has had an impact on public perception of reporting, Shribman said. According to annual polls released by Gallup, trust in national news media is down to 32 percent from more than 50 percent in 2000. And according to a poll from Axios and Survey Monkey, 72 percent of Americans believe news sources report information they know to be false.

But while the rise of the term “fake news” has had a monumental impact on public perception, it has also impacted the practice of journalism, according to Shribman. He said journalists can no longer take for granted the ability to discover the truth with good sourcing.

“For nearly a half century in journalism, I’ve navigated with the aid of a newspaper man’s North Star — the convention that there is such a thing as objective truth that can be discovered and delivered through passionate hard work and passionate good faith,” Shribman said.

Since the perception and communication of facts by previously reputable sources is shaky, he said, journalists have to work harder to do honest reporting. However, he said journalists have proven they still have the ability to report the truth if they go back to the basics.

“Even though political figures can often tell whoppers, it’s incontrovertible that there’s such a thing as the truth,” Shribman said. “It’s built on facts, one placed beside the other, in a fair-minded way.”

Shribman cited many case studies to demonstrate the importance of truth, including the Gulf of Tonkin incident which launched the United States into the Vietnam War and the false information about weapons of mass destruction that led America into the Iraq War. These events, he said, indicate how reporting and understanding the truth is important.

“We need to examine the conflicting views of the truth, acknowledging that some philosophers argue that there’s no such thing as the truth,” Shribman said. “We need to consider the difference between facts and the truth, the possibility that you can assemble facts in a way that produce a result that is not the truth.”

The event then transitioned into a question-and-answer format, during which Shribman fielded topics from the audience. Edward McCord, the director of the Dick Thornburgh Forum, asked how newspapers report objectively and truthfully about sensitive topics, using climate change as an example. He compared the situation of reporting on climate change to Bob Inglis, a Republican U.S. representative from South Carolina who lost his re-election bid after embracing the scientifically agreed-upon reality of climate change.

[Read: Event explores conflict over climate change]

“Bob Inglis changed his position about the reality of global warming. As a consequence of that, he went from being a very popular representative to losing his election by a landslide,” McCord said. “How does one delicately report truthfully as a reporter when you’re dealing with subjects in which the truth you could speak affects the peril of your survival?”

Shribman said the discussion surrounding climate change has shifted over the past decade, and that newspapers should report based on scientific consensus. He said this offers a guide for how newspapers report on delicate topics.

“I think it’s safe to say that there’s a broad scientific consensus now that climate change is real,” Shribman said. “A newspaper, or any kind of news outlet, that acts in denial of that is being unreasonable and ineffective.”

While few students attended the event, those who did gained knowledge about professions in journalism. Jason Earle, a junior communications and English writing major, said the event offered him insight into the role of journalism in broadcasting the truth to the public.

“It’s always interesting to get a perspective from someone like that, who is the pinnacle of print media,” Earle said. “In times like today, with President Trump, there’s obviously always plenty of interesting topics to be discussed.”

Shribman said it’s now the responsibility of journalists to continue to put the truth first, in spite of what elected officials say.

“What is left for us to show, as journalists, as historians, as scholars in the world, is that the truth still matters,” Shribman said.