Is It True? – A Journalists’ Forum
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — Is it true that most stories we read or hear from media these days are incomplete and lacking in context? The answer generally leans towards yes, an alarming trend which, according to a seasoned journalist in the New York Times raises a concern. What happens to our society or resolution of issues in our society when you cannot trust that people accept what happened yesterday or today? Thought provoking.
A few moons ago, journalists and writers here gathered for a reflective conversation on the one product that they profess loyalty to, the truth.
The topic, naturally complicated, became engaging because of its bumpiness. Speaker/facilitator Terry Schwadron, sensitively managed the conversation with his 43 years of experience as former senior editor of the New York Times, also once senior editor of the Los Angeles Times, and the Providence Journal.
With the intent to provide a critical eye for journalists in gathering news and news consumers to have a critical view of what has been ‘served’ them by the media, the National Writers Union New York Chapter chose to engage in this conversation in mid-Manhattan. Timely and relevant, the forum was done at the height of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a few days after journalist James Foley was beheaded in Syria.
Schwadron begins to say that “Is it True?” is a complex question.
To some, it is an ontological question, that is, that there is nothing inherently “true” about anything we see in the world. Plato saw truth as a reflection of another plane of reference altogether.
It is also a historical question. Truth moves over time. The earth is no longer considered flat, for one.
An increasingly important issue is audience, he said. Whose truth? Truth to whom?
There is also the argument over “objectivity” in news, whether there are “facts” that can be agreed upon.
“Is it True?” is also a question arising from those public questions where values are at odds and the current state of affairs.
In the light of social media, “Is It True?” is taking on a new meaning. It is clear is that with as a media-conscious society becomes increasingly adept at getting observations distributed widely, there has been a mix of fact and opinion.
Schwadron believes that “people now seem to believe essentially that information about public matters exist in order to persuade – or simply to allow the individual to announce.”
For journalists and the conveyors of messages, “Is it True?” is a narrower question on one’s craft, work habit, self satisfaction.
Schwadron feels that these days, there is a general loss of rigor and lack of validation for the truth, on the part of journalists and writers.
What’s the problem?
A quick look at the media would give one a picture of haste.
Schwadron enumerates some of these:
Trend stories that declare that there is a trend without a trend.
Stories that equate “both sides” with a just look at the situation at hand. Maybe there are more than two sides, or maybe there is really only one side.
Stories that only report what is said without looking at what is meant, and Stories that appear to be about what is meant without listening to actual voices.
He noted that news and information consumers must be wary with news having anonymous sources, whether these are about good or bad news, “or a congressional story that never tells you what the bill is about, just the politics.”
Stories about poll results that do not account for margin of error seem to fall into the “whole picture” gap; so too stories about the latest medical test result — whether or not it was based on a study of 16 people or some small group rather than over time or among thousands of patients, Schwadron explained.
He encouraged readers to make an effort to check names that are cited in the news as well as to look for the margin of errors in stories that tackle on medical researches.
Schwadron emphasized among journalists the need to put one’s story in context, to be complete and fully understood.
“Context need not require a full story. It could be reflected in phrases or a paragraph or two in the original story. Since it is difficult to have deep knowledge about all areas, what we might do instead is rely on a bit of research before speaking or writing, an endorsement of “verification” efforts to triangulate importance and context.”
Government documents and trial dockets remain to be solid sources of information, he said, rather than straight information.
What is the upside?
Regardless of the seeming chaos in the digital highway, the positive signs of times is that more observation and questioning are coming from the ground, and a growing skepticism about the status quo, said Schwadron. “People are more questioning and expressive these days.”
For Angela Maynard, a freelance blogger, the truth in news reporting continues to be a prime responsibility of the writer. “Truth is angular, depending on the values and work ethic of the writer. I think the contention will begin there, regardless of what actually happened in the field.”
The Pew Research Journalism Project highlighted principles of journalism: first obligation to truth, loyalty to citizens, discipline for verification, independence of the journalists from news sources, independent monitor of those in power, strive to make stories relevant and interesting, forum for public criticism and compromise, and allowing media practitioners their personal conscience in the course of duty.