The Theory of Relativity

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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?

None?

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.

2 responses to “The Theory of Relativity

  1. Much of what you say

    is TRUE.

  2. This topic is quite broad and philosophical. I enjoy thinking about it. So, I am writing a long post. (I will try not to write as much next time.)

    Journalism is intertwined with history, and will continue to be. It is therefore important that “truthful” facts be the foundation of societies’ information flow ( i.e. journalism. ) The alternative is “untruthful” information, which can lead to more harm.

    U.S. journalists (and citizens) have been living in a society with constitutionally protected freedoms. Yes there have been regulations. But in general, U.S. has led the world with our freedom of the press, speech, religion, etc… Other countries do not enjoy these same freedoms. While this may seem “off point” it really isn’t. When we discuss the pros and cons of the “historical U.S. journalism model” – we must remember the context. We can debate “journalism” and how it brings different viewpoints. But at the heart of the matter…it is not “journalism” per se that affects society. It is the topics we report on. And there are many important fundamental topics – like religion, freedom, the press, speech, capitalism, communism, medicine, trade, crime, judiciary, etc… Have we not been able to freely discuss these things here in the U.S.? What about in other countries?

    As we move into a new unlimited, internet model … a new “context” emerges. Different people, different countries and societies do not share or respect the same freedoms and the same ethics. Applying our U.S. “standard” of journalism to the world wide web – needs to be evaluated, analyzed, and understood – in order to be effective. When I say “effective” I mean “beneficial to society.” Because that is the purpose and value of ethical journalism. In the U.S., the journalism “norm” means… the person communicating…has something he believes society needs to hear…in order to make things better….for society. Now, compare that with other countries’ “norms.”

    Does the new internet revolution “smash” the U.S. “norm” of ethical journalism? Some say the new internet revolution will smash the U.S. model of ethical journalism. But I am not convinced U.S. journalists, media outlets, government, and people here, will simply throw out the expectation and demand for ethical journalism practices. I think that factual news gathering based on truth will become more important, and valued. (For me it will. That’s why I enjoy C-Span.)

    The changes in technology and journalism not only apply to the U.S. model – it also applies to repressed societies. It could be argued that they will see more changes due to the internet…than we will. Those without freedoms – may benefit even more from an increased information flow.

    I am no expert on the definition of truth. But I think there are concrete truths, perceived truths, believed truths, and untruths.

    There are different beliefs, opinions and perspectives on religion, government models, art, etc… But factual truths do exist in regards to reporting on events. Legal testimony relies on truthful evidence. There are facts. There is hearsay. There is opinion. There are eye witnesses. There are fingerprints. There is circumstantial evidence. Etc… Certain truths cannot be ignored, dismissed, changed, or debated.

    Journalism should be based on factual and provable truths. Historians rely on facts, not opinion. So do current leaders. Do not take that for granted.

    Do not devalue the value of ethical journalism.

    Opinion is different than journalism. Perspective is different than journalism. Opinion can be based on incomplete information, point of view, belief, and even falsehoods. Opinion can mislead. Opinion can be meant to cause harm. Any communication based on lies harms society, and cannot be defined as journalism.

    Therefore, it is more important going forward with any new “journalism” model …that opinion and journalism be CLEARLY separated and defined. Otherwise societies may suffer harm.

    Journalism must be defined…as factual and truthful. Otherwise, it is no longer is journalism. This is important for the future good of all …I think.

    Truth can sometimes cause damage, in cases where national security is at stake. That is another debate. But in general, “truth” will provide more benefits for society, than falsehoods. False information can cause harm.

    That is why journalism training, education, ethical codes, and structure…is important.

    Truth is real. Truth is pure. Truth exists. And journalists, by definition, I think…report truths based on facts, in order to benefit society.

    Yes, there are different “perspectives” in the world. Perspectives are different than facts. And perspectives can and should be heard. But they should be defined…not as journalism…but as opinion, or perspective.

    I agree, there are different perspectives on who is “the good guy” and who is the “bad guy” in broad matters like world affairs. These perspectives are often based on a multitude of elements, facts, beliefs, opinions, issues, problems and possible solutions. Facts and truthful journalism therefore become even more important.

    Journalists do not determine outcomes. Journalists report facts, so society can determine outcomes.

    “Good” and “bad” do exist. There are certainly ethical debates. But again, journalists, by definition, do not determine. They are the reporters. This “model” of journalism has served society quite well, generally, in the U.S. It should be respected.

    Whether journalism comes from individuals, or corporations, does not matter. But the distinction between journalism and opinion does matter. “Black and White” might be grey in some instances…but that does not eliminate these colors. Those who do not see what is truly “black” or “white” are closing their eyes to the reality of the color spectrum.

    Societies do need to make judgments about “good” and “bad.” Again, fair, balanced, factual, truthful journalism plays a part. So do ethics. So do laws. So do moral standards. Again, in the new age, different countries and people bring different perspectives to the debate. That is welcomed.

    Ethical “journalism” is important.

    A citizen posting their opinionated video journal on the internet…based on opinion… cannot be defined as journalism. It may be entertaining. It may be informative. But if it is not accurate; does not fairly report; intentionally leaves out important facts; tries to sway by presented false or misleading information…etc… then it can definitely harm society. It cannot be defined as journalism. Nor as truth.

    Whose “society” does a journalist serve? The U.S. interests? A Muslim nation’s interests? Europe’s interests? China’s interests? The world’s interests? Mankinds’ interests? The Christian’s interests? The atheist’s interests? In the U.S. the press has been able to report any and all of these interests. I have heard many sides of most issues. This internet revolution – might have more of an effect on repressed societies. Because they, historically, have not had access to a free press. etc… Hopefully the internet journalism will foster “positive” and beneficial social growth – in countries that do not enjoy freedom.

    There are – most agree – great benefits to the U.S. model of a free press, and other freedoms. There are negatives as well. I will enjoy watching video storytelling from different perspectives. That is what freedom of the press and journalism is for. But as you said…. it is going to be relative to where you are; where you have come from; and where you are going.

    Not only do U.S. journalists and societies need to adapt to the changing internet model…. but so do other countries and societies. Perhaps some of the ethical practices we have developed in the U.S. will spread.

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