Should Journalists Tell the Truth?

by Steven Perez

At first glance, it seems like a simple question. Duh, we expect our journalists to tell the truth, I learned that as one of the first tenants of journalism.

Today, public editor of the NYTimes, Arthur Brisbane wrote an editorial asking, on the surface, if we want truth-telling to be the primary goal of new-writers?  But really, it seems to me like he’s asking a more nuanced question, like should we put the truth as a priority above perceived balance and objectivity?

The example Brisbane uses is of misleading statements by politicians on the campaign trail.  Should the Times just quote a candidate stating a blatant misrepresentation of the truth, and let it lie, or should they follow up the quote with a sentence explaining that the previous statement is not supported by any record or other sort of proof. The problem is that to point out a misrepresentation by one candidate, and not another (assuming, perhaps, that the other candidates in the race, speak only the truth) the reporter would appear biased.

To me, Brisbane is asking if we want truth more than we want balance.  And it seems like a good question, because I do sometimes feel like reporters have sacrificed the truth for a sense of balance, like on climate change coverage, for example. In political coverage, which I admittedly read less of, it can be even worse. It seems like we’ve entered an era where people not only have their own opinions, they have their own facts!

However, it seems like few of the people who wrote comments to Brisbane’s article perceived his question the way I did.  They mostly say, What the fuck do you mean by asking this? Duh you are supposed to tell the truth! That is the point of journalism!

Which misses the question of what do you want most from your journalists? Maybe, it’s only in the j-school bubble where I now hang out that people are actively debating these questions? Maybe most people don’t notice that balanced news is the norm, and that the truth is not always balanced. It can be hard for journalists to provide truth and balance, if the truth is not balanced.

Jay Rosen’s PressThink blog provides a much better analysis of the controversy that the NYTimes post has stirred up that I can provide. He tells a story of how journalists subtly shifted in priorities:

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground–more like pros–when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.

I pulled out my copy of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, basically, the essential reading on journalism’s responsibilities in democracy. Their #1 Element is:

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

Followed by:

Its first loyalty is to citizens. Its essence is a discipline of verification. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant. It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion. Its practitioners have  an obligation to exercise  their personal conscience. Citizens too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

I really like these rules, so I just quoted the whole thing.  What is striking, to me, is that they never mention that Journalists should provide “fair and balanced” news. Which makes me think that “fair and balanced” has become a false news value. Dangerous, even, because it sometimes detracts from the truth, or from the act of verification, of keeping the news in proportion. Now, my former ethics major and currently law student roommate just reminded me that “the truth” is often a very flexible concept. Sometimes there is no true truth. And you don’t want to try and beat her in a debate, she practices. But, although the truth is not always constant or easy to nail down, that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our best to present the truths that we find in our reporting. It’s all in the context we give to our stories, our facts, our choices as story-tellers, I think, that keeps them as true as possible.

Does it sound like I’m giving myself a pep talk? Sorry, but I’m excited about joining this messy profession of journalism and figuring out how to navigate these sorts of expectations and responsibilities is a major part of step one. What do you think about Brisbane’s question? What should we prioritize in how we report the news?

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