Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel accurately call truth the “first and most confusing principle.” These days it sometimes seems as though we’re embarrassed to be caught talking about the truth, as if doing so were a kind of sentimentality. Our skeptical age has rediscovered that truth just isn’t something you can be sure about. Moreover, in the history of the 20thcentury, too many people who have said they know The Truth have ended up committing barbarities in its name.
Yet journalists intuitively know that they owe their first duty to truth (or at least to reality), and they also know that they have to exercise strict self-discipline to satisfy the obligation. This discipline is so exacting that it can require the sacrifice of financial self-interest, of friendships, even of personal safety. So while the concept of truth may lack clarity, every journalist knows that truth can make nonnegotiable demands.
Erosion of confidence in the idea of truth has unfortunate effects on society at large, not the least of which is that it invites people to lie. If the truth is unknowable anyway, what is the difference? At times it seems that everything “depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
But as unpleasant as these large social consequences might be, the effect on journalism of our lack of confidence in our ability to know the truth is nothing less than disastrous, negating its very reason for being. Journalism not moored with the discipline of truth might look like Pravda. Or it might look like Lewis Carroll.
Something must be done to make truth an idea we journalists can believe in again. How can we ask the public to believe what we say if we are unsure ourselves?
Kovach and Rosenstiel make a real contribution in this difficult area by fundamentally redefining the problem. The difficulty has been that we can’t believe that flawed, subjective human beings can know the truth, let alone communicate it. Kurt Gödel has shown that even mathematical logic is imperfect (or at least incomplete), so what chance do emotion-colored perceptions of human beings have? As for communicating to other people, philosophers observe that you cannot even know if the red you see looks the same to you as the red I see looks to me.
Kovach and Rosenstiel turn our attention away from this problematic idea of truth as an outcome and turn it toward the process by which we might approximate the truth. “Objectivity,” the word we once used to naively define journalism’s aim, is really not best thought of as an attribute of the story at all, still less an attribute of a hopelessly subjective human being who writes it. Objectivity, they say, is a method, a discipline, a habit of mind. They are too modest to appropriate the idea as their own. They point to early work by Walter Lippmann that called for a scientific method of journalism. “In the original concept, in other words,” they write, “the method is objective, not the journalist. The key was in the discipline of the craft, not the aim.”
Of course, it is impossible for subjective individuals, locked within the prison of their own perceptions, to produce objective accounts of reality. But it is possible for subjective individuals to use rigorous methods, just as subjective scientists do. And it works. We might not be able to say what the truth is, but we can reach deep into space, play billiards with subatomic particles, and manipulate the very helix of life.
Another way of putting it is that, while we might all agree that it is epistemologically naive to think we can know and communicate The Truth, some accounts of reality are closer approximations than are others. Seen this way, what journalists do is to arrive at their judgments in a careful and disciplined way and make their claims confidently but provisionally, subject always to revision.
I would have liked a deeper examination in Kovach and Rosenstiel’s book of the alternatives to “balance” or “fairness” as a discipline for journalists. Since the truth we tell can be no more than approximate, modesty alone requires that we properly represent other points of view, even if in the end we explicitly favor one over another. The trouble with truth is not that it has become a sentimental and outmoded notion. We can have knowledge and communicate it. What we cannot have is certainty. Perfection is not possible. But we knew that all along, didn’t we?
Remembering this should not make us despair nor free us to throw off all our truth disciplines. It should just keep us humble.
Jack Fuller is president and CEO of Tribune Publishing Company and the author of “News Values: Ideas for An Information Age” (University of Chicago Press).