Journalists get this question—or lament—all the time from people who think the news offers too much opinion and not enough fact. More than two-thirds of Americans say they see too much opinion and bias in news that is supposed to be “objective,” according to a Knight Foundation poll. Hence the plea, “just stick to the facts.”
Here’s the problem: Serving up just the facts can misrepresent the news or even create a false narrative. Facts need context—that background information that adds depth to a story and helps news consumers understand the issue or the wider implications of those facts. Context provides historical information and a frame of reference for comparisons. It’s necessary to make sense of the news.
When context is missing, the truth can be distorted. Case in point: Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson’s record on sentencing sex offenders. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has portrayed Jackson as “soft on crime” based on her sentences in seven child pornography cases that he listed in a thread on his Twitter account.
Several news outlets picked up on these tweets and published stories with headlines like “Ketanji Brown Jackson’s worrying, outdated thinking on child pornography” at the Washington Examiner, “An Alarming Pattern” on Daily Caller and “Hawley Warns of Biden’s SCOTUS pick’s ‘long record’ of letting child porn offenders off the hook” at Fox News.
Even network news outlets like NBC and CBS included Hawley’s claims in stories without “pushback, providing unchecked airtime to his lie about Jackson’s judicial record,” according to Mediamatters.org.
While Hawley accurately lays out the specifics of each case, the facts belie Jackson’s true record.
Why? Because they are presented without any context.
Jackson made more than 100 sentencing decisions and 500 rulings as a federal trial court judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 2013. She presided over 14 child sex crime cases during that period. Those seven cases presented by Hawley are a small subset of her sentencing decisions and a judgment on whether she is “soft” or “tough” on crime should look at her record in its entirety, not a few cherry-picked cases.
That said, in the seven cases listed below, Fact-check.org found that Jackson’s average sentence in these sex offender cases was more than two years below the minimum federal guidelines. That is a fact, but one that requires context to fully understand its relevance and meaning.
According to a 2021 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 59 percent of all sentences for defendants in child pornography cases were below these minimum sentencing guidelines, largely because the legal community views the recommendations as excessively severe and in need of reform. In two of the seven cases, even the federal prosecutor recommended sentences below the minimum guideline. If this is considered, Jackson’s decisions on sentencing in these cases appear to be well within the mainstream.
The chart also includes the sentence recommended by the probation office, which provides all judges with a presentence report. Hawley neglected to mention that Jackson’s sentences in five of the seven cases aligned with, or exceeded, the probation office’s recommendation. Jackson’s sentences were below the government and probation office’s recommendations in just two cases.
In light of this context, both conservative and liberal legal scholars and numerous fact-checking sites have determined that Hawley’s charges that Jackson is “soft on crime” and “soft on sex offenders who prey on children” are misleading. Despite Hawley’s presentation of the facts in these cases, Fox News legal analyst Andrew McCarthy called the charges “a smear” and “meritless to the point of demagoguery,” and NYU law professor Rachel Barkow said Hawley’s claims misrepresent Jackson’s record and lack critical context.
In The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel state that it is the journalist’s responsibility to verify information and then help make sense of it. They write that providing context “implies doing more reporting, adding facts, widening the lens and perspective. It is not argument or persuasion. Nor is it telling people what to think.” On the contrary, once news consumers are armed with the facts and the context surrounding those facts, they are in a position to reach their own informed opinion.
Kovach and Rosenstiel go on to say the truth is a complicated and sometimes contradictory phenomenon and that, fortunately, journalists have moved beyond stenography. Brent Cunningham’s 2003 essay Re-Thinking Objectivity notes that American reporters began to question “official” narratives during the 1960s and ‘70s, and quotes former New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis: “Vietnam and Watergate destroyed what I think was a genuine sense that our officials knew more than we did and acted in good faith.” To this, Cunningham adds that journalists began to appreciate the “limits of objectivity,” noting that “reporters [are allowed] leeway to analyze, explain, and put news in context, thereby helping guide readers and viewers through the flood of information.”
Facts alone cannot guide us through that flood. As Cunningham observes, context is the ingredient that transforms facts into knowledge and ultimately, truth.