Watchdog Blog

Herb Strentz: The Truth is Elusive? Nah, Not in Our Business.

Posted at 1:58 pm, November 21st, 2008
Herb Strentz Mug

Journalists play fast and loose with “truth.”

That’s not a complaint from a loser in the November election. It comes instead after reviewing several journalism codes and statements of ethics.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists calls upon its members to “Seek Truth and Report it.” The Radio Television News Directors Association also is in the hunt: “Professional electronic journalists should pursue truth aggressively.”

While SPJ and the RTNDA seek and pursue “truth,” The Associated Press has found it! The AP Statement of News Values boasts, “For more than a century and a half, men and women of The Associated Press have had the privilege of bringing truth to the world.”

No statement of principles that I know of makes a more grandiose claim. It’s not just the truth every now and then, either: “AP’s audio actualities must always tell the truth,” the statement says. And one I especially like and admire: “AP pictures must always tell the truth.” (So a sound bite or photo of Gov. Sarah Palin callin’ critics “cowards” tells the truth about what?) The Associated Press Managing Editors guidelines say that for the good newspaper, “Truth is its guiding principle.”

Such statements are troubling because what journalists do, for the most part, is try to report what makes sense for the moment, what seems to be the case right now, and then follow up with corrections, clarifications and more information as a story develops. That is a far cry from “bringing truth to the world.”

No reader, viewer or listener in one’s right mind turns to journalists for “Truth.” Maybe to find out who won the football game, what the school board did or where all that smoke was from, but not for “Truth.”

If some non-journalism association or individual paraded its commitments and achievements in such fashion, the press would affix such labels as “Orwellian” or “Newspeak” to the declaration. (Fox News says it is “fair and balanced” and we snicker at that; are we supposed to nod approvingly and solemnly when the AP says it brings truth to the world?)

Not all media organizations are so lofty.As the American Society of Newspaper Editors puts it, “Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.”

So why don’t the other codes just stake out more modest, honest and realistic claims? Here are some reasons why, and why “truth-telling” is a questionable realm for journalism. Codes, tenets, principles are idealistic, not pragmatic:

  • A Code of ethics, statement of principles or vows peppered with phrases like “whenever possible,” “when convenient,” or “when it won’t hurt” simply will not appeal to our higher nature. Codes should cause us to stretch, in the Robert Browning sense, so that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
  • The myth that journalists deal in “truths” may be akin to myths like “innocent until proven guilty” or “all men are created equal.” In the abstract, “Myths are things that never were, but always are” — an observation that Google credits to Stephen of Byzantium in the sixth century.
  • Associating one’s craft, profession or discipline with “truth” is uplifting and inspiring. We echo John Milton’s paean to truth in Areopagitica: “Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” But if words are the currency of journalists, shouldn’t we pay more attention to bogus bills in our pronouncements?
  • Journalists are story tellers, not truth tellers. News accounts are representations of events and people, not the events and people themselves. As representations they can’t be the whole truth. The unit of newspapers and broadcasts is “the story” not “the truth.”
  • If we want to parade a commitment to the truth, we might follow the distinction philosopher Sissela Bok makes between being truthful and telling the truth. Being truthful, to paraphrase Bok, means giving an honest account of a situation or circumstance as we understand it as of this moment. Bok is troubled by the concept of truth telling for at least two reasons: 1. The difficulty of figuring out what is true, and 2. The harm that people who have “the truth” inflict upon others.
  • Much of what appears in the news is opinion — not only in editorials and columns, but in news stories in which school board members give their opinions about what is best for the children, in which police give their views of what happened at an accident, etc. Libel suit litigation tells us there is no such thing as a “false opinion.” If so, there is no such thing as a “true opinion” either. Given the absence of “truth” in much of what is reported, why make such a big thing of it in our codes and statements of principles?

The news audience might be better served if instead of supposedly dealing in truth, journalists would offer disclaimers, like this one I crafted for newspapers:

“The contents of today’s paper should be treated with care. The information collected and presented was done so under circumstances and conditions that are error prone. The newsroom budget and funds available to assure accuracy are constrained by the corporation’s fiduciary responsibility to stockholders. Consequently, the reader is advised to seek multiple sources of information and to be sure to read the paper tomorrow for any corrections or clarifications or for new developments needed to put today’s news into perspective. While we cannot warranty that all information in today’s paper is accurate, we do warranty that our editors and staff practice no intentional deception, and we do abide by an affirmative duty to publish corrections promptly and fully.”

Promising not to deliberately deceive and to publish corrections promptly may be the best we can do. And, that, as they say, is…

Comments are closed.

The website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.