Monday, September 27, 2010

Journalism: The Pursuit of Truth

A few days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the new President, Lyndon Johnson, sent for the Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to gather information on the status of the Vietnam War. McNamara flew to Saigon and talked to generals and touring various battle zones. Afterwards, he held two press conferences and reported the he was greatly encouraged: progress was noteworthy; South Vietnamese forces were taking a greater role and Viet Cong casualties were increasing.

Eight years later, the press published a secret government-written history about what the government knew and thought about the Vietnam War – The Pentagon Papers. They knew that things were going to hell, and it was a complete repudiation of everything McNamara had said. What might have happened had the truth emerged in 1963, instead of 1971?

In the first hours of an event, when being accurate is most difficult, accuracy is most important. This is the time that public attitudes are formed. Is it a threat to me? Is it good for me? Is it something I should be concerned about? The answer to these questions determines how carefully we follow a new event and how critical we reflect upon the information we are presented.

This is also the time in which the government can exercise its greatest control over the public mind. If given a couple of days without challenge, the government will have set the context for an event and can control public perception of that event. But if challenged, the news can be a powerful weapon against oppression and manipulation.

Journalism’s first obligation is to the Truth

The earliest journalists – messengers in preliterate societies – were expected to recall matters accurately. Often the news these messengers carried was a matter of survival, e.g., leaders needed information about whether a rival tribe might attack them and how many warriors they have.

Journalists should pursue the truth. Since news is the material that people use to learn and think about the world, the most important quality is that it is useful and reliable. If the news is incorrect, then it is no longer conductive to the collective happiness of the people and the health of the society. No sensationalism. No invention. No propaganda. No distortions. Just accurately bringing to light facts and construct an honest and reliable picture of reality, upon which people can act. Journalism is after a functional form of truth, on which we can operate on a day-to-day basis.

Once they have verified the facts, reporters try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. They try to provide the best obtainable version of the truth. They attempt to get at the truth in a confused world by first stripping information of any attached misinformation, disinformation, or self-promoting bias. Accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built: context, interpretation, debate. If the foundation is faulty, then everything else is flawed. One of the dangers with many programs, radio shows, tabloids, blogs, etc. is that they are not really concerned about the truth, as much as to control, to influence, to moralize and/or to gain power and money.

Between Relativism and Absolutism

Journalists may never see and present the truth, but some of them will come closer than others, be more objective and more honest. We can still tell when someone has come closer to a true picture of reality, when the research is exhaustive, the interpretation is logical, the methods are transparent.

The concept of truth is controversial. We can never be certain that we have obtained the truth. The notion of absolute truth is a delusion. The truth is an ideal and a goal that we pursue and value, but will probably never fully obtain.

This does not mean that all is relative. Some claims are clearly more correct than others, and the success of the sciences picture of the nature of the universe, shows us that there is still possible to talk about knowledge. There is a large difference the claim "I got clothes in my closet", and the claim "I got a time-machine". The first is not only possible, but very likely, given our background knowledge about closets and clothes. The second is not impossible, but highly unlikely, given that there has been no previous report about successful construction of a time-machine. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary skepticism and extraordinary evidence.

“We strive for coverage that aims as much as possible to present the reader with enough information to make up his or her own mind” – Bill Keller

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