The Truth About the Truth

“Truth” is a pretty loaded word, in my opinion. Yes, there are certain facts one can confirm, as I have many times on the copy desk: how much someone gets paid, when a public forum will be held or a title of a source. But, as this chapter of “The Elements of Journalism” notes, journalists have specific ideas about how to approach stories, ideas that are often based on personal experiences or even biases. How those stories turn out depend on who they think might be good sources, and how hard they work to seek out information. Because of this, I found Clay Shirky’s argument to be particularly interesting: “Truth is a judgment about what persuades us to believe a particular assertion.”

I thought a lot about what truth (and journalistic truth) was, though not in such an eloquent way, when I lived in the U.K. Although I was harshly judged by many for my profession — tabloid-style publications dominate the media scene there, so there’s a lack of trust and perceived integrity — one instance stands out: One afternoon, an older man sat next to me on a train, and he told me the story of how the media ruined his life.

He’s one of the oldest survivors of HIV in the U.K. (I Googled this in the moment; he even encouraged me to). He told me that, at times, media organizations printed the opposite of what he told them. They cast him in a light that made him an outcast and made the public dislike him during a time when out gay men weren’t accepted by all. He said that, for a while, the media made it hard for him to live safely — or even get a job. It was only when Princess Diana wanted to listen when things started improving, but he said even now some media outlets cast him and his activism in a negative light.

I don’t know whether every detail he told me was the truth; I don’t have a way to confirm that. I also don’t know which media outlets to which he was referring. But it made me think about perspective and context, something that I saw lacking in a lot of British media articles I read. When I read and edit stories, I always wonder if someone’s being left out of the story or if there’s another perspective that’s not included. If a fact’s not explicitly sourced or backed up, I’m skeptical of it. I agree with Kovach and Rosenstiel when they say, “We need a journalism … that allows us to answer the question, ‘Why should I believe this?’ rather than ‘Do I agree with it?'”

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