Tuesday, November 3, 2009

‘Journalism is a matter of faith’

The portrayal of truth is one of the core principles of media and communication ethics, especially in our society. (Merrill, 2006) But “the truth” is not always universally understood between groups of people, let alone different media entities.

“It is fair to say that the most common ethical perspective seems to be truth-telling. Truth, of course, means many things to different media.” (Merrill, p. 95)

Pursuing and attempting to report on what journalists see as the truth can often become problematic in itself. “Truth can be dangerous, and not only that, it can be ‘unethical’ in some cases. But it persists as a foundation stone of ethics.” (Merrill, p.92)

Merrill writes that the media piece together different parts of truth to concoct a version of truth that is specific to which media entity is creating it.

“The metaphysical truth cannot be told, so the media need not worry about that. The kind of truth they are concerned with comprise bits and pieces of the truth they select from the wide-world of truth, the selected and communicated truth. Not the whole truth, of course; that is impossible. So, what this means is that the media’s version of the truth is their truth. And since various media provide differing versions of ‘the truth,’ the people never really know exactly what to believe. Journalism is a matter of faith.” (Merrill, p. 95)

When viewing truth in this way, as Merrill is identifying it, the truth will always be relative. And a media entity’s version of the truth will always be incomplete.

“People believe something of the hodge-podge of material they access from the media and from a few private conversations. One’s synthesis of the varieties of media-produced information is about the only truth he or she will get.” (Merrill, p. 95)

So maybe the population has a right to be skeptical of the validity of media reports, especially in an era of 24-hour Michael Jackson coverage and the riveting saga that was “Balloon Boy.” Their skepticism should motivate journalists to try harder to be more accurate and thorough in their reporting, and to report on more important and meaningful issues. While we cannot know the full truth, journalists should make an attempt to paint the most accurate and informative picture of the truth.

“The truth with a capital ‘T’—Transcendental Truth—of course, we will never know. But some of the big-T truth falls into the potential level of reality where we can get at it. The dedicated journalist, then, selects as much of this potential truth as possible for the report. And from this selected truth, the story is written or produced. Of course it is not ‘truthful’ in the sense of matching reality, just as a map does not match the territory it depicts. But there are better and worse map-makers and there are better and worse reporters.” (Merrill, p. 110)


  1. I don't believe that journalists are creating truth or are only selecting bits and pieces of the truth. What I do believe is that due to varying factors, such as pressure to feed the "news beast", that they stop short of the truth. Yes, I agree that to think of the truth in absolute terms is unrealistic. But as Kovach and Rosenstiel assert, supplying the truth is a sorting out process. The truth is not an end but a never ending process of shifting through false or unknown information to provide citizens with the best attainable version of the truth so they may think for themselves and be self-governing. I think the media is more guilty of this than concocting a version of the truth. If anything I think that it's a byproduct of not completing the truth process.

  2. A very thoughtful, and well-written blog. My concern is that this line of thinking leads us to resign ourselves to thinking something to the effect of, "Truth is unattainable, so why try to find it?" This is not what Merrill means, and I certainly don't want to be misunderstood as supporting this line of thinking. Most of the first unit of our course focused on truth and how journalists can think about "objectivity as method" (K & R, Schudson & Tifft) in ways that lead to "seeing the world as it is" an finding the best attainable version of truth (small t).

    The closing graph hits a key point: some of us are better at this than others. Our "maps" are more representative of the territory.

  3. To me, while it can be frustrating to be in a profession where you know you are ultimately scrapping to get at something unattainable and varying, it is a matter of options. By this I mean that 1) the journalist has the options to show exactly whose truth they will spread the word about and 2) giving readers different accounts of truth & letting them decide which option they best agree with. I think it is called the "Rashomon Effect" where witnesses of the same incident will have completely different accounts of what happened, thereby obscuring the factual accuracy of an event. As a journalist you are limited by which witness and their 'truth' you get to interview-never realizing just how many other 'truths' you could be missing. As journalists maybe we are not truth-seekers so much as just option givers.