In News Reporting There Is No Truth, Just Perspective

On Oct. 17, 2014, I received my membership card to the Society of Professional Journalists, which had been on my “maybe join” list for years. What flipped me forward: The organization’s Code of Ethics, which official revision released September 6. I had observed, but not participated in, the process to produce the new guidelines, which, while overreaching, are worthwhile.

However, while the changes contributed to my decision to join SPJ—being a journalist who blogs rather than a blogger—my ethical priorities differ somewhat from the new Code. My book Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers is all about ethics and how the Internet changes them. The tome makes trust, rather than truth, the news gatherer’s top ethical tenet. 

The Quest for True
It’s unrealistic to make truth the first ethical obligation, or any other. SPJ organizes its new Code into four core tenets that are similar to the previous guidelines. The first one sets me off: “Seek Truth and Report It”. I would dismiss the whole Code if not for the 18 sensible supporting “journalist should” rules of conduct. They’re excellent.

As for truth, there is no such thing in news reporting, and it’s a misguided ethic promoted by journalism schools and newsrooms. My practice, and as an editor giving guidance to reporters: Report what you know to be true in the moment, but expect what’s true will change. I call this the Prime Directive, lifting a little from Star Trek.

There is a vast difference between truth and what’s true. The connotations around truth are absolute, as in always. Whereas true is a changeable measurement. The difference might seem to some people reading this post like splitting semantics. I say that in news reporting the difference means everything.

There’s an excellent exchange in movie “Absence of Malice” between Michael Gallagher, played by Paul Newman, and Megan Carter (Sally Field). Gallagher exclaims:

You don’t write the truth. You write what people say. What you overhear, you eavesdrop. You don’t come across truth that easy. Maybe it’s just what you think, what you feel. I don’t need your goddamn newspaper to decide what they’re gonna do with me. Or who I am.

“You don’t come across truth that easy” is right. “Truth” often is subjective, depending on point of view, and reporters typically gather information from sources who are people. That said, data journalism, which news organizations like ProPublica practices, is an exception when information is primary source.

Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post executive editor, resonates with Gallagher’s sentiment and with greater authority:

Newspapers don’t tell the truth under many different, and occasionally innocent, scenarios. Mostly when they don’t know the truth. Or when they quote someone who does not know the truth.

And more and more, when they quote someone who is spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.

And finally, when they quote someone who is flat-out lying. There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times—in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything. It wasn’t always that way.

Bad News
Sally Field plays a reporter who doesn’t see events she reports from enough vantage points, and she makes many unethical and irresponsible choices as she seeks to get the story. That’s one problem. Another is the reliability of her sources. Here’s a truth—yes truth, strangely stated given the post’s topic: People lie. Source’s can’t always be trusted, for lots of good reasons, such as being misinformed, seeking attention, or acting with an agenda.

The most important question to ask when reporting about anything, and it’s essential to viewpoint, is “Who benefits?” The answer can also help identify when a source’s motivations are suspect. If Sally Field’s character had asked this question, she could have avoided the troubles she created by reporting irresponsibly.

Another of SPJ’s tenets, with seven supporting points, is “Minimize Harm”. Movie character Megan Carter maximizes harm, and her editor rewards the behavior, because she doesn’t question the reasons behind her source’s actions. Human beings are primarily motivated to get something, to seek gain. Understanding “Who benefits?” is essential to accurate and responsible reporting.

Accuracy, like true, also is a measure of time and perspective, and is not the same as truth. Seeking to report accurately is about getting the facts right in the moment, with the understanding they will change, particularly for breaking events or for follow-up stories that explore additional perspectives.

Vantage Point
Perspective is why responsible reporters seek multiple sources, not just to verify information, and write second-day takes. In the three-dimensional world, how an object appears—meaning what is true—changes depending upon perspective.

For example, there is nothing absolute about how the statue of a man looks from the front when you change position and look from behind. Vantage point changes your perception. Likewise, if I stand on a platform, as a train passes, what’s true is this: The train is before me. But then it is not. Time changes what is true, as does perspective.

Similarly, in news reporting, time and perspective are essential factors affecting news gathering. Human motivations, e.g. “Who benefits?”, purifies perspective and exposes additional viewpoints—what’s accurate, what’s true. Meanwhile some events are unfolding.

For example, there’s an explosion on Pennsylvania Ave., in downtown Washington, D.C. The first news reports, based on reliable but unnamed police sources, say it’s a car bomb. The followup story cites sources claiming a terrorist attack blocks from the White House. However, hours later, investigators determine that the car contained illegal fireworks that exploded. Each report is true based on the credible information at the time. But what’s true, and in this example what’s false, changes as a factor of time.

What matters most: The audience can trust that you reported information as accurately as possible, based on the credible information at the time your story posted.

Trust vs Truth
Maintaining the audience’s trust is more important than seeking truth, because:

  • There is no such thing as truth in news reporting.
  • The Internet floods people’s senses with rumors and misinformation.
  • Readers, listeners, or viewers need news sources that provide information they can trust.

In book Responsible Reporting, I assert:

What all parties share in common today is audience, where trust is the glue. Some audiences demand advocacy, while others look for impartiality—or both. But all seek sources of information they can rely on…You aren’t beholden to truth but to your audience—to them you are accountable, and in the age of context with shocking immediacy. During the print journalism era, reporters were accountable to editors. Today, they are accountable to the audience. If you lose your job, you can always get another. Audience isn’t easily regained, if lost, nor reputational trust.

The audience’s trust means everything, and the expectation you the journalist create. Some blogs or news organizations, and so their writers, are advocates that present a specific point of view. As a tech reporter, I see this often among Apple blogs and news sites. All news reporting is about perspective—that is point of view. Some writers stick to one point of view, which is fine as long as they report responsibly, which starts with establishing sound sourcing practices and maintaining the audience’s trust.

Advocacy journalism is not the type I practice, but there is a place for it in this era of contextual reporting where audience is the one asset no news organization should jeopardize. I strongly, ah, advocate presenting multiple—sometimes even conflicting viewpoints—that fully illuminate a news event. Trust starts with sourcing, meaning those whom you communicate with first-hand.

Some of my past posts on trust and sourcing that I encourage you to read:

Journalist’s Trust is Inviolate“, July 2005

The Difference Between Blogging and Journalism“, March 2010

Single Sourcing Is the Source of News Evil“, September 2011

Nail Down Your Sourcing“, July 2012

Report! Don’t Repeat Rumors!“, April 2014

The Difference Between Nixon and Obama News Reporting“, August 2014

Quoting one last time from my book: “Responsible reporting is all about establishing and maintaining the audience’s and sources’ trust, which is your most valuable personal asset”.