I was out on one of my morning walks when I caught sight of a sticker in the back of a parked car:
“Is that the Truth? Or is your News Limited?”
At first I chuckled to myself as a clever dig at the Murdoch press which in Australia until recently was referred to as News Limited (now News Corp Australia).
But then I got really quite annoyed about it.
Not in defence of Murdoch, but more that it really shows a lack of understanding about what journalism is all about.
I would love to tell you that every journalist tells the truth (and in all honesty I believe most certainly try to do this) but in reality truth is one of those difficult things to establish.
The oft told example is of a car accident and four different witnesses. The truth is an incident happened but you ask each of the four witnesses what they saw and you will most likely get variations in the stories, who was driving, the colours of the cars etc.
In traditional media you could wait until the details were confirmed by authorities – so you attribute the information to a credible source and that gets printed in tomorrow’s paper or in tonight’s TV bulletin.
But in the immediate news environment we have today you can’t wait for every little piece of information to be confirmed, the story has to be out there as quickly as possible and updated regularly as more information comes to light.
I saw a social media comment from one journalist last year which I think is a great example of how hard it is to establish the truth in a story.
She was reporting on an accident: police told her four people had been taken to hospital, fire fighters told her three people, the paramedics five. She called the hospital but they couldn’t confirm any numbers at all.
So what’s the truth?
An accident has happened. A number of people may have been hurt. Some may have been taken to hospital.
It sounds vague at best. That would be an example of your news being limited.
Journalists instead work on facts rather than ‘truths’.
The fact is an incident has happened.
Is it even right to refer to it as an accident? Well yes, if that’s how it’s been described by authorities and you attribute it to them:
“Police say an accident…”
One would then assume that’s the truth – but perhaps it wasn’t an accident, perhaps someone deliberately drove at another vehicle?
That ‘truth’ would only come out in an investigation – if indeed at all.
Establishing the number of people hurt or taken to hospital without a definite confirmation it’s best to play it safe.
“Emergency crews are unable to confirm at this time how many people are injured or have been taken to hospital.”
A fact. They have all given differing information so rather than going with the biggest number for the best story, it’s better to attribute the lack of clear information to the authorities.
The journalist could also have reported that at least three people had been injured and taken to hospital as that seems to be the minimum number and if there are more then the ‘at least’ takes this into consideration.
But if the hospital can’t confirm any numbers at all – is it the truth?
I personally don’t know any journalist who has deliberately or knowingly told an untruth, but you can see when it comes down to it, the truth is a difficult area.
Think about the legal system and the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ clause. Again it’s all about what you can prove – the facts of a case – or story in journalism. Lawyers just make a lot more money out of it!
Now hopefully you understand my conundrum with such a simplistic swipe at the media.