What is fact-based analysis?

The Juan Williams story continues to fester across Planet Public Radio. This morning, Midmorning provided an excellent look at some of the issues surrounding the firing.

NPR, meanwhile, has sent out talking points to its member stations, who are taking the heat for the firing of Williams. They’re not much different than what the NPR ombudsman provided in her article this morning (I provided the link in this morning’s 5×8). And this is the central issue:

In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.

This is where it gets difficult. What exactly is fact-based analysis? In many cases, a journalist might connect two facts — this is common in political “analysis” — and describe what may be a politician’s strategy. They don’t really know for sure that it’s the strategy being employed, because the people employing it won’t say. Is that opinion, fact-based analysis, or just a guess?

These are questions that reveal the true nature of journalism and those who practice it. It’s not a black-and-white task.

A blogger I read daily provided an interesting observation yesterday:

As the child of a television executive, I can tell you that growing up we were not even allowed to have political yard signs. Such a visible display of political leanings could be easily construed as representing the news departments of the stations my father worked at. Of course, this was a time (not that long ago, really) will journalistic ethics were grounded in the work of people like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Walter Cronkite expressed an opinion — or was it fact-based analysis? — in 1968. He was right, as it turned out, because it ended a war. But journalists debate to this day whether he dictated the outcome with his analysis — because it led to a reversal of public (wait for it)… opinion — or whether it was destined to work out that way anyway.

Edward R. Murrow — the very definition of an ethical journalist — achieved his greatest fame with an opinion. Where did the facts end and the opinion begin?

Ed Bradley, in a reminiscence about his approach to Vietnam stories, makes it clear that he never considered journalism a regurgitation of facts. “I knew we couldn’t win that war,” he said. Does that come from opinion? From fact? Or a little of both?

In its excellent show this morning, Midmorning asked whether Juan Williams “crossed the line.” What NPR did this week is try to define where that line is. Can it be defined? Or do you just know it when you see it?