Back to Stories

The Fall Line: Journalism Exists To Debunk Myths

In the American West, facts are critical for understanding Greater Yellowstone

In the American West, mythology and stereotypes are still perpetuated through spaghetti western films and mock shootouts such as this one in Old Tombstone in southeast Arizona. Journalism must follow certain tenets, and exists to debunk myth. Creative Commons photo
In the American West, mythology and stereotypes are still perpetuated through spaghetti western films and mock shootouts such as this one in Old Tombstone in southeast Arizona. Journalism must follow certain tenets, and exists to debunk myth. Creative Commons photo

EDITOR’S NOTE: The fall line is the most direct path down a mountain. If you drop a snowball on the peak, its steepest path is down the fall line. In skiing, it’s where you want to live. Geologically speaking, it’s where hard bedrock meets softer soil and drops in elevation and what you might avoid unless you’re a boater looking for waterfalls or rapids.

“The Fall Line” is also the name of MoJo Managing Editor Joseph T. O’Connor’s new column, a regular piece of editorial work that will examine the Greater Yellowstone through his eyes. We hope it will offer some insight and we hope you enjoy it. – Todd Wilkinson

by Joseph T. O’Connor

When I first saw “The New West” column at Mountain Journal in 2017, I had already been working with its author, MoJo founder Todd Wilkinson, for three years as his editor at my former publications. The writing was strong, confident, truthful. I thought about how Wilkinson presented his column, which he has been writing for more than 35 years. What struck me was how it informed readers through fact-based analysis. It was an example of bringing journalism into the world of “opinion writing,” aka: a column. I recently ran into this again.

A December Washington Post column by Perry Bacon Jr. heralded LA journalist Ronald Brownstein for bringing depth and insight into his work, and therefore providing readers with clarity and understanding. “He writes columns,” Bacon Jr. mused, “but his work is more analysis and explanation than opinion.”

This is a nuance missed by many writers and those reading their work. A column is not a news story or investigative report. It is, of course, a writer’s view of the world from his or her perspective, but it need not, as Bacon Jr. says, consist merely of opinion. At its core, journalism exists to debunk mythology not to perpetuate it. In the West, it must shine a light on the truth about the challenges we face: water issues, the disruption of wildlife migration corridors, human sprawl, a changing climate, to name a few.

For the better part of the last decade, I proudly ran the Explore Big Sky newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine in Big Sky, Montana, where I still reside. Most of my editorial team’s writing consisted of news or longform magazine articles based on research and reporting in the field. Occasionally, I would write editorials for both the paper and the magazine.

Writing strong editorials, like columns, is not easy. They can feel forced and self-indulgent, but it is possible to bring new and fact-based information to the prose. And in time, with some luck, the writer finds his or her voice.

In joining Mountain Journal this fall, I’ve been rediscovering my voice while interviewing some of the experts you see quoted in this publication and discussing the Yellowstone ecosystem and journalism as it exists today with Wilkinson. I say “as it exists today” because journalism, like all things, shifts and changes.

I began learning the craft of journalism in this flux. It began, for me, in the late ‘90s querying magazines in letters printed out and mailed, including a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a lot of waiting. The internet was still sorting itself and Google was in its infancy, libraries still served as the main research centers, and archives were still mostly in print. These were the years before social media, the omnipresence of email newsletters, and texting. You called sources on landlines, and the newest laptop was like carrying around a typewriter.

Objectivity was a tenet of journalism and included balanced reporting, fairness, facts and that thing called the inverted pyramid. You told both sides of the story to give readers the opportunity to make up their own minds. But, like the way technology has changed newsmaking, the process itself has shifted. To write in “both-sidedness” can misrepresent the facts. What remains critical is truth and fairness to the story. These are more important than the concepts of objectivity and “balanced reporting,” which can undermine truth based on fact. And that leads to the foundation journalism is built on: trust. In this line of work, truth builds trust between writer and reader. Anything other than truth, accuracy and transparency stands to destroy that trust.

Writing opinion columns does differ from news, but they should exist in the same vein and must include fact-based truth. They differ in that analysis and explanation are crucial in a columnist’s work. At MoJo, we are after the truth about the West, about the perils that face this delicate Yellowstone ecosystem. We will continue to provide readers with the facts and analysis, whether we’re writing news or columns. Anything less is just like, your opinion, man.

Shifting from general news reporting at a newspaper to focused research, writing and editing at a place like Mountain Journal has been eye-opening for me. The reactionary act of covering general news, while necessary in that line of work, allows for less enterprise reporting, less reflection, less analysis. At MoJo, I’m encouraged to write more “thought pieces,” as Wilkinson reminds me, which will take the forms of both deeply reported articles and also a regular column. That’s something I value, and I hope to consistently provide fact-based pieces that offer insight and build trust.

At nearly 3,500 square miles and containing the largest concentration of mammals in the Lower 48, the Greater Yellowstone region is among the most miraculous settings on Earth. Recognizing it as the only mostly intact ecosystem in the Lower 48 is a mark of true genius in President Ulysses S. Grant’s setting it aside 150 years ago as the world’s first national park. To be able to cover this area is a unique gift and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Joseph T. O'Connor
About Joseph T. O'Connor

Joseph T. O’Connor is Mountain Journal’s Managing Editor. He brings to the team an extensive background in multimedia storytelling including writing, editing, video broadcast and investigative journalism. Joe most recently served as Editor-in-Chief for Mountain Outlaw magazine and the Explore Big Sky newspaper in Big Sky, Montana, and has published work in Newsweek magazine, CNN, Skiing magazine, and in newspapers and magazines from Virginia and Massachusetts to Colorado and California. He moved to Montana in 2012 after taking graduate journalism courses at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places