In Pursuit of the Truth (Part 2)

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As I described last week, numerous pitfalls exist in a journalist’s search for the truth. Another major impediment stems from the sheer complexity of life itself. I’ll explain using this analogy I like to use with students.

I tell them to imagine a reporter is sent into their classroom to write a profile about the class. The reporter’s aim to is to write a truthful account of what the class does during a typical day. What facts are relevant? How should the reporter gather information to arrive at the truth?

A few points of consideration quickly emerge. First, no one person can notice all the details occurring within his or her environment. In that classroom setting alone—a very limited space and a limited time frame—thousands of small interactions occur, from someone yawning to another student running a brush through her hair to another glancing across the room for a few seconds. No one can notice everything. Some details will inevitably be lost.

Second, it’s important to figure out which facts or occurrences are most important for the story. The details mentioned above might seem rather trivial; others might be more germane—the way students interact with each other, the work they do, and the attitudes they demonstrate toward to their work. Even of the facts the reporter does observe, the reporter will brush some of them aside. Not everything will make its way into the story. Is there a potential loss to “the truth” here?

Third, observation requires follow-up. Reporters shouldn’t assume they understand what they see. For instance, if a student in the class appears sullen and withdrawn, one who observes that doesn’t understand the cause—Is the student simply tired, or is she facing other problems with school or at home, or is she having trouble working with other class members? This bespeaks of the need to interview in order to find answers.

Another point reinforces the need to ask questions: Each person’s experience in the class is different. The way an individual reacts to an experience is unique. This is colored by that person’s individual experiences, beliefs, ideas, goals, fears and a host of other factors.

After considering all of these factors, it’s clear that finding the “truth” isn’t as easy as it appears. If this many pitfalls exist when talking about a classroom, imagine how all of these are magnified when dealing with more substantive issues like a political corruption scandal or a war.

The human mind can’t process all of the interactions. Therefore, we select a few facts that seem most relevant or telling to a given situation. However, this begs the question: Will the public ever know the real story behind most major events? Can we really hope to understand the complex cultural issues that lead two countries to go to war? Is it possible to understand why the police chief bribed a county official when it isn’t possible to get inside someone’s head?

As students learn the practical skills of reporting—researching, interviewing, finding sources, evaluating claims—they need to bear in mind that discovering the truth is always tougher than it appears. Built in are factors that work against a reporter’s ability to discern the truth.

The most crucial remedy is to recognize the fallible nature of the profession—no system of communication run by human beings will ever be perfect. The goal is to keep asking questions, to keep searching, and to keep trying to understand the multiple viewpoints so that the version reported is as close to the real truth as possible.

Perhaps most critical is the need to appreciate one’s limited abilities. Reporters should never get a big head about thinking they discovered the “whole story.”

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In pursuit of the truth (Part 1)

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Pursuit of the truth is often described as journalism’s primary goal. However, this relatively simple aim is often mired in layers of confusion, doubt and even debate. For reporters, especially those new to the profession, it sounds easy enough: Gather the facts and just the facts. Don’t let personal biases and opinions cloud your professional judgment. Talk to as many people as possible. In the end, your final product should be something close to the “truth.”

So where does all of the confusion originate? Well, it comes from several places. It’s essential for young reporters to think through this issue in order to avoid some common pitfalls. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel point out some of the concerns in their book “The Elements of Journalism.”

First, a fundamental difference exists between accuracy and the truth. Being accurate (or getting the details right—what someone said, how his name is spelled, etc.) is an essential building block of truth. Paying attention to those seemingly small details will yield numerous returns—namely increased credibility and respect from readers.

However, the truth often seems more fleeting. It’s possible to be accurate without being truthful. If a reporter quotes a school official who says she hasn’t received any complaints from parents about a change in grading policy, it would be accurate to report that because it came from the interview. However, if that school official were lying in order to minimize bad publicity, reporting her statement wouldn’t be the truth, even though it was an accurate quote.

Journalists need to recognize the importance of seeking numerous forms of verification, even for information that comes from “experts” or other authoritative sources.

Second, truth is often in a fierce fight with falsehood. Our society is permeated with a myriad of voices. The First Amendment exists to allow all of those voices to create what is sometimes a cacophonous roar all aimed at helping citizens decipher the truth. Some purposefully use falsehoods, innuendo and half-truths to make political points or grabs at power. Take, for instance, the jabbing from all sides about the passage of health care reform. Some say costs will go up, others down. Some say it will kill jobs, while others say it will create them. This can leave average citizens in a bind when figuring out who is telling the truth. This makes websites and news services like Politifact all that more necessary.

Third, some equate truth with their personal version of it. For instance, if someone believes large corporations are “evil,” his or her judgment about news stories and other pieces of information about such entities could be clouded by this personal belief. Anytime they don’t see coverage the completely validates their preconceived notions of the truth, they might claim the stories are biased or false. Just examine some of the debate about President Obama’s birth certificate.

In the second part of this post, I’ll explore the “complexities of human life” that add further complication to journalists as they gather information as well as some tips for teaching this concept to students.