Monday, November 12, 2018

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What readers need to know about Journalism and the Truth


Philosophers, theologians, scholars of various sorts, politicians, writers and common people have debated the concept of truth for centuries.

Many people claim to have the corner market on the Truth of something or everything. Often truth boils down to what a person believes – that leap of faith if you will – to be true, regardless of the kind of or lack of evidence to support the person’s claim.

Our argument here is not about the truth of a universal nature, but rather what reporting the truth means in journalism.

In a country fervent with fake news accusations, and a community where some people who like to attribute the term “liar” to our local reporters, or claim the West River Eagle newspaper just makes things up and presents all kinds of biased reporting, a discussion of the roles newspapers and reporter play in the news dissemination business is in order.

First, it is imperative for readers to understand the duel nature of a newspaper. Newspapers provide a service to the community by being a central location through which information is shared to the broader public.

To provide that venue, the newspaper has to have a business department, or in the case of the West River Eagle, a business manager and an advertising sales person. This business department raises and manages funds that pay the employee salaries, overhead costs, the paper on which the news is printed, the printing of that paper for the members of the public to each have a copy, and the dissemination of the paper.

Of the employees, we have the business people and the news people, and these two different types of people have very different aims. The business-minded person wants to make money and keep advertisers happy, and the news-mind people want to share the news, truthfully, supported with facts, and not always in agreement with the paying advertisers.

Battles about what to print and how to print it ensue at newspapers across America as the business of journalism tries to balance itself with the responsibility of journalism. If advertisers are not happy with the paper, they hit the paper’s pocket-book by pulling their ads and taking their money elsewhere.

However, journalists on the whole, are driven to reveal the truths of a matter and keep the public informed about what is going on in a community.

Journalists are an essential part of any community because their role in a democracy is to keep an eye out for the working public, letting that public know what is going on in the institutions of their communities, and in a sense holding those institutions accountable to the laws and regulations designed to hold them accountable.

Newspapers sell space to advertisers, and within the laws of decency – both internal and external – the advertisers can say what they want in that paid space. Information in paid-for space in a newspaper is not a reflection of the opinions of that newspaper, just of the people who bought that space.

Advertising is very different from columns and editorials on a Voices and Opinions page. Like this editorial, the Voices and Opinions articles are exactly that – the voices (perspectives) and opinions of the writers of the article.

In this case, this opinion is sanctioned by the West River Eagle editorial board and written by a writer on that board. It represents the opinion of the editorial board members working at the West River Eagle, not necessarily the owners of the newspaper.

Many newspapers have editorial boards which write about certain topics they have discussed and/or researched as a group, and then present for the reading audience of the newspaper as food for thought.

Columns and letters to the editor are of the same nature as the editorial board editorials; however, columns can travel back and forth from a fact-based report and analysis on a topic to an opinion on a topic, which is why it is often placed on the Voices and Opinion pages.

This brings us to the idea of truth reporting and perceptions of the reading public. Advertising and opinion writing are their own entities in a newspaper and while most people tell the truth as they see it in these two different entities, there is an acceptance that not everyone will agree or like what is printed in an ad or in an editorial or column.

An example may be a campaign ad in which one candidate claims another candidate is falsely representing his or her position on a particular subject, or accuses another candidate of promoting voter fraud. The newspaper has nothing to do with these representations, and essentially need to allow them because of the right individuals have to free speech, and because we need to the money.

However, in news reporting, reporters work very hard to convey the truth of an event or issue by interviewing people for their knowledge and perspectives, and conducting research of publically available documents.

Interviewing someone who accurately reports what he saw at the scene of an accident may not lead the reporter to the truth of that accident, as that person may be telling exactly what he saw, but he may not have seen everything that happened, making his truth telling false in relationship to the accident itself.

Reporters are then tasked with trying to gather as much information as possible, much like an investigator at a crime scene, before sharing the story with the public.

Unfortunately, reporters do not always have the time or cooperation from people to fully investigate every story before timely publication of that story, and on a staff as small as the WRE, with the limited number of reporters we have, we are not always able to interview the ideal cross-section of people for each article.

That said, we try – as do most journalists – to present information as accurately as possible about the topic given who we can speak with and what other information we gather, being careful to seek the truth of a matter, not just what someone says about it.

Often times, reporters lack the background knowledge to even ask the kind of questions that would get at underlying issues in situations, and they come at a story with a perspective that someone with that knowledge would never consider.

This difference in perspective can lead to false accusations of reporters misrepresenting the truth.

At a city council meeting, a new reporter relayed the topics and discussion as she heard and saw them play out, and after reporting the news, learned that she had misrepresented one of the exchanges because she did not know that in that particular public meeting, the exchange was between two people who had known each other a long time and were joking around.

Reporters often face these kinds of situations in which what they saw and heard, is not what they perceived, and often are not made aware of that fact until after publication.

This kind of perception or understanding gap is not always avoidable, and can’t be recognized without the help of an understanding public who critically thinks through a story, considers the perspective given, and lets the reporter know what perspective may have been left out or misunderstood.

Truth-telling then, for a journalist, is tricky business, and care must be taken to gather the many versions of the truth, and discern what the audience needs to know to make their own, well-informed decision, about the subject, issue or event discussed in the article.

Readers are also tasked with the responsibility of understanding the nature of news and must not allow politicians, leaders or reporters make false claims to the truth by constantly questioning what is really going on, what the many possible perspectives may be, and where they stand on the spectrum of perspective.

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