What is ‘truth’ in journalism?
Is there an ‘absolute truth’ toward which we can aspire?
When there were only a very few sources of information, it was easy to believe that there was one ‘true’ story. But is there really?
Let’s say you are driving in a car at 20 miles an hour. To a person standing on the road you seem to be going at 20 MPH. To a person sitting next to you in the car, you don’t seem to be moving at all, but the person standing on the roadside just whizzed past them at 20 MPH. To someone driving in another car hurtling toward you at 20 MPH you seem to be approaching them at 40 MPH. To someone riding besides you in a moped at 10 MPH, you seem to be pulling ahead of them at 10MPH while the approaching car is coming at 30 MPH.
Which is the ‘true’ measure of how fast you are going.
In point of fact, they are all true. It is simply a function of where the observer is and under what conditions they are observing. You are going 20 MPH, but you are also going 40 MPH and you are also going 10 MPH, and to someone observing this from space, you are going 17,020 MPH, (assuming you are driving eastbound). All are correct and all are true, all at the same time. None are wrong.
A Middle Eastern freedom fighter, seeking to rid his homeland of an occupying force far more powerful than his own walks into a major hotel and sets off an explosion that kills 100+ people. He is a terrorist. Or, he is Menachim Begin blowing up the King David Hotel in 1948. Freedom fighter?
A ragtag rebel force trying to expel the occupying army of the most powerful military machine the world has ever known stealthily sneaks into that army’s main dormatory in the dead of night, on Christmas Eve, no less, when most of the men are drinking and celebrating. They burst into the party and kill everyone. Terrorists? Or George Washington crossing the Delaware to attack the Hessians?
The ‘truth’ in these stories depends entirely upon who is ‘reporting’ the story.
How then does the ‘journalist’ report them? Which is the truth?
As with the car and the bicycle, they are all true. It is simply the same event viewed from different perspectives.
In a world of limited platforms – (ie, a few networks or a few newspapers), it was not possible to present all sides. In fact, it was (as Al Gore might say) an inconvenient truth. And, for most of human history, the addage that ‘the winners write the history’ held true. Far from living in an information explosion, we lived in an information desert – a highly controlled environment in which the sheer cost and complexity of gathering and delivering the ‘news’ made it inevitable that there would be a massive simplification of facts. Anything else was just too complicated.
Good guys and bad guys.
The web, and the plethora of laptops and cameras around the world is starting (and just starting) to unwind this old architecture.
How many Iraqis do you think have video cameras? 100,000? 1,000,000?
We have been at war in Iraq now for five years. In all of those 5 years, how much footage have you seen on the Evening News or Cable News from any of those Iraqi cameras?
Is it because we cannot ‘trust’ the Iraqis to ‘objectively’ tell us what is going on inside their own country?
Is it because what they would tell us does not fit into the neat paradigm we have convinced ourselves is ‘the truth’?
Is it because we cannot process so wide a range of information? It no longer fits into our ‘truth’ of the situation there?
It is confusing – so better to bury it than try and deal with so many voices at the same time.
The world is about to be flooded by a whole new kind of ‘journalism’ – a relativistic journalism. My truth, your truth, his truth, her truth. Confusing.
What makes this all the more confusing is that all these ‘truths’ are equally valid. Like the man in the car, it all depends upon what your point of observation is.
As I said before, free presses are messy. They are supposed to be.
But we now have to mature as a society and be able to deal with complexity and multi-faceted events. The world is no longer cast in black and white – good guys and bad guys.
From here on in, it’s going to be relative…. to where you are… to where you have come from… and to where you are going.