Journalists can’t tell the Truth

Journalists can’t tell the Truth.  Not that we are all inveterate liars, although there are some.  And we have all, in my experience, lied to get a story.

It’s just that we do not have the tools nor are we in the circumstances that can lead us to make that bold statement that this is the Truth.   We need to get the facts straight.  We need to be accurate in our quotations.  But the Truth eludes us.

Journalism is messy

We are not scientists.  We do not have a clean laboratory in which we can reproduce the experiment and get the same answer time after time.  We cannot put on paper or online a simple formula which states the Truth about the world.

We need to report about the world.  We need to show how events change and unfold.  We need to show how people are affected by these events and also make them.  But claiming to be able to tell the Truth is a dangerous proposal.

False expectations

Claiming to tell the Truth leads our readers, listeners and viewers to expect the Truth from us.  And when they don’t get the Truth from us they are, rightly, disappointed.  That, I believe, is the cause of much of the disquiet among readers, listeners and viewers about the media.  We are not delivering what we claim to deliver.

What we can do is deliver a plausible explanation about the world in context.  If we can get our readers, listeners and viewers to understand that this is the best we can do, then they will be satisfied.  Or, at least less sceptical.

Truth a rod for our back

We often talk a lot about the objectivity of the media.  Put that along with the search for Truth and we have made for ourselves a rod with which we are rightly beaten.

So let’s tell the truth: we can’t tell the Truth.

3 thoughts on “Journalists can’t tell the Truth

  1. Andrew Calcutt says:

    Up to a point, Lord Copper.

    Of course, individual journalists are fallible, and a few are downright crooked. But collectively, especially under pressure from the people formerly known as readers, we can get the story right. And we are more likely to, if we have every intention of doing so.

    Yes, like doctoring, reporting is messy and sometimes sticky. Like doctors making the right diagnosis of their patient’s ‘story’, the trick of journalists telling the truth entails being there on the ground and being one step removed at one and the same time, e.g. Tom Wicker being in Dallas as Kennedy lay dying, and being able to order the events of the day into a timeless pyramid structure.

    For the social theorists among you, this double act is supported by an entire social system in which everyone’s labour is both concrete (particular, discrete) and simultaneously abstract (transferable, commensurate). This is what allows us to ‘get the facts straight’ according to universal standards.

    Today’s journalists overburdened by lofty ambition? I don’t think so. Crippled by low expectations, more like. Especially in the West. And it would be especially sad if Easterners carried on looking to Western journalists for truth that can outweigh domestic propaganda, only to be told they’re asking too much.

    Truth is no more than we should ask for, Mr Beadle.

  2. Soilman says:

    Journalists rarely tell the truth. They tell stories. Stories always sell newspapers or mags and/or drive traffic. Only when the truth is a good story does it stand any chance of being told.

    That journalism is about searching for truth is the biggest lie journalists tell themselves. That most of them believe it is their clearest disqualification for the job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *