The Truth v. the truth

Any talented journalist has written hundreds of stories that are truthful, and they can do this with one hand tied behind their back. But I guarantee you he has written multiple stories that aren’t Truthful. And that he feels there’s nothing ethically wrong with that.

What the hell am I talking about? For the purposes of a lot of what I’m writing here, I’ll distinguish between the truth and the Truth. The truth is simply factually accurate. For example, I’m 21 years old. That’s true. The Truth has more depth than that, and it’s about whether a narrative or a premise of an article is spot-on, it’s about whether the story is complete and whether its assumptions are valid. The overwhelming majority of news articles are true, but a much smaller number of them are True.

Journalism claims to deliver the Truth, complete and unvarnished. But the structure of news stories, as well as human nature, makes this claim virtually impossible to deliver 100 percent of the time.

Partially, this is due to the form’s conventions. To be “balanced,” journalists sometimes air arguments they think are bullshit. A story that’s only budgeted for 10 inches doesn’t leave much room for context. And the need to meet deadline means sometimes voices can get left out of a report, and if the story doesn’t merit a follow-up, tough for the source who didn’t call back by 5 p.m.

Just as often, the Truth suffers because reporters are lazy, or fall victim to inherent psychological biases. What we see is more important than what we know. A single outstanding case outweighs hundreds of normal ones. We take claims on face value without vetting them. We block out information that contradicts whatever narrative we have previously chosen to accept. Sometimes that makes the narrative more True than it was before.

A classic example of this is the press’ treatment of Al Gore in 2000. If you remember the campaign, Gore was basically painted as a serial liar who claimed he invented the internet and said ‘Love Story‘ was based off his life. The fact that he did neither didn’t seem to bother the press that much.

But even if you dig, getting to the Truth is incredibly difficult. I interned at PolitiFact last winter. PolitiFact concerns itself exclusively with the truth. It determines whether statements – generally lasting a maximum of two sentences – are true or false. It doesn’t attempt to tell you if cap-and-trade legislation will create more jobs. It just tells you if “every legitimate group” that has studied the issue thinks it’ll create jobs. But even evaluating seemingly up-or-down statements is complex enough that besides just “true” and “false” rankings, there are also “barely true,” “half-true” and “mostly true” grades. As Jay Rosen recently tweeted:

Did Halliburton defraud the government of hundreds of millions of dollars as Arianna said? @politifact:

Today’s report by @politifact, which took four days to complete, shows how fact checking our televised dialogue can be grindingly difficult.

It took a group of Pulitzer-winning journalists four days to determine whether or not Huffington’s statement was true. Their eventual answer? Maybe.

So if simply determining the truth is that difficult, then uncovering the Truth must be damn near impossible. Obviously, the first step is getting the facts right. If journalists hadn’t endlessly repeated the fact that Gore claimed to have invented the internet, it would have been a lot more difficult for the false narrative about Gore being a serial liar to take hold.

There’s also the case in which a reporter fails to question a narrative, and opts not to pursue the truth. The best example of this can be found in Rosen’s post “The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism.”

More broadly, any Truth is incredibly complex and has multiple facts and perspectives supporting (and not supporting) it. Getting to its core and getting it exactly, 100 percent right should be the goal of every story. But many good journalists admit that too often, this ends in failure.

This is from an interview with Lorraine Adams, a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter at the Washington Post who left journalism to become a novelist:

You recently gave an interview to the BBC wherein you stated you left journalism for fiction so that you could write the truth. Could you explain what you meant?

This is a wholly imagined [book], so this is as far from the truth as you can possibly get. And of course, they’re right. This is not the truth in terms of a witnessable, observable scene. But what I would argue is that no reporter is ever allowed to see these things. What happens is we read the accounts of embedded journalists who follow soldiers. Those accounts by those embedded reporters stand in for the truth: They are observed scenes, they are witnessable scenes. But there is a privacy that no journalist ever pierces. That is where the truth resides. Because we live in a culture that believes we must not waste any time on works of the imagination, that we must only be hardworking, very serious people who only read facts, we assume that these nonfiction accounts are the whole truth. In fact, they are as much as a partial truth, for different reasons, as fiction.

In summary, Truth-telling is:

  • journalism’s major goal.
  • Very hard to do.
  • Achieved with less than perfect regularity.

Modern journalism’s theoretical solution to this is to stick to the truth, to not judge and to letter the reader decide. But just rattling off facts and information rarely creates a compelling story. And modern journalism, even “straight” news pieces, are filled with opinion. The very act of filling out a front page is opinion. The lede story, in the opinion of the newspaper’s editors, is the most important one of the day. The lede of a story, in the opinion of the reporter and the editor, is the most important information. And in resigning ourselves to be mere deliverers of information, aren’t we depriving our consumers of our right to the Truth?

The solution to this, if there is one, is for journalism to give up its claim to unvarnished truth. Admit we don’t know or can’t acknowledge everything, and be upfront about what we’re missing. Invite readers to help out.

These debates might seem stupid and academic, but to be honest, the possibility that an article I write doesn’t deliver the Truth scares the living hell out of me.

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