Debunking truth

*A reposting of this week’s Journalism and Democracy post.

Last week we discussed quite a bit about the goal of truth, especially in regards to political coverage. I couldn’t help but think about how this was something I struggled with a bit last semester. I think I wrote a blog post about it too. I worked on the public life beat at the Missourian last semester and spent most of the semester covering the enhanced enterprise zone debate — a debate that had many “truths.”

I think this is a great example of how the truth is complex and more than a simple “Yes, it’s true,” or “No, it’s not true,” answer. As I covered this ongoing debate, I realized there was much more to it than simply regurgitating what each side would say at council meetings or planning meetings. Sure, I could easily write about what each side said at the latest meeting, but what purpose would that serve than to just record the day’s events. One side believed there were other ways to grow Columbia’s economy than offering tax incentives to businesses. The other side believed it was a tool to attract and keep businesses in Columbia. When each side would make their case, they believed what they were saying to be true, which made getting at the actual truth a challenge.

Kovach and Rosenthal talk about in chapter two of the Elements of Journalism how if journalists fall into a passive type of role, all they are doing is merely recording the world’s happenings. There’s more to the coverage than serving as a sounding board for political candidates and others in public office who use the media to also serve their interests.

“The search for truth becomes a conversation,” Kovach and Rosenthal write.

I wish I had known about this idea as I was covering Columbia’s EEZ debate. If I thought of it more like a process and conversation, I think it would only have strengthened our coverage. Our goal was to provide a human interest side to the debate. Show readers how implementing a zone would actually impact a community. There’s more to these types of government stories than what you report from meetings or documents and that’s what we wanted to achieve — a conversation that would shed light on the truth behind an EEZ’s impact on a city. (Although now the point is moot because Columbia has decided not to implement the zone)

A quote by Walter Lippmann speaks to this idea of injecting analysis into journalism to better reach the truth.

“News and truth are not the same thing…the function of news is to signalize an event,” Walter Lippmann wrote.

There is news and there is truth. Yes, there is value to “signalizing” an event, but there is more value to getting at the idea of “why” or the meaning behind the event.

Thought also needs to be put into the validity or truth of what the reporter is hearing. This is what Arthur Brisbane was trying to get at in his truth vigilante idea. If the media only is there to act as a stenographer, truth can become obsolete. Truth in journalism is hard to explain, but that’s just it — it’s what makes journalist’s still valuable. Truth in journalism is a rather complicated idea to put in pen, but when it’s done right, we all know.

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