Truth, evidence, and limitations in journalism

Key takeaways

Truth (journalistic truth)

  • Journalistic truth is the best obtainable version of the truth based on verified facts up to that point of publication.
  • News reporting is a continuing journey towards finding the truth as our understanding can only build over time.
  • The news audience needs to follow the story over time.

Evidence

  • Not all evidence is equal. News stories are composed of both direct and arm’s length evidence.
  • Journalists make inferences and present “likely scenarios.” Inferences could break down with new evidence.
  • Journalists must make that transparent in their reports.
  • The audience should understand the limitations of news reports.

Limitations in journalism

  • Journalists are constantly racing against time.
  • Investigative work requires time and money.
  • Knowledgeable and reliable sources are not always readily available.
  • In many countries, press freedom is limited. Laws, regulations, and other political constraints undermine newsgathering efforts.

Introduction

[Video script]

What is truth? This can be a philosophical question. Truth has been a topic of discussion for thousands of years among philosophers since the days of Socrates and Plato.

But in this course, we are not trying to discuss philosophical definitions of the truth.

What we are concerned is how to tell what information is more reliable and trustworthy in news stories. What we need is a working definition of truth in journalism… or journalistic truths.

You may say it’s simple. Telling the truth means reporting what happened with verified facts. It sounds simple but in reality, it is not easy to do that.

The September-Eleven terrorist attack in New York in 2001, for example, took place in front of many people. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, there were millions of people all over the world watching it unfold on TV.

Many of us saw what happened first hand through live broadcast but even though we were witnessing what was happening, we had little idea about what was really going on.

Who is behind the attack? Who were the passengers? How did the terrorists take control of the planes? There were many unanswered questions. We wanted to know the truths immediately.

But as you can imagine it takes weeks, months, and years of investigations before we have a reasonable understanding of how such attacks had been planned and carried out.

Often times journalists are telling news stories with a limited amount of information and facts. Yes, good reporters are always trying to tell the truth but the truth we speak of is provisional.

When a new piece of evidence emerges, the previous news stories could turn out to be false. The truth in journalism is not a certainty.

In science, truths are also provisional. For a long time, people believed that the earth is flat. Newton, Darwin, Einstein — they all advanced our knowledge by presenting new theories that challenged our perceptions and understanding of the world.

The truth in journalism is not a conclusive account but the best obtainable version of the news events based on verified facts up to that point of publication.

News reporting is a continuing journey. The truth can only build over time. To know and understand the truth, we the news audience also need to follow the media coverage over time.

A few years ago, there was this story in the news media about Oreo cookies. The news headlines from the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the TIME Magazine all suggested Oreos could be as hazardous as highly addictive drugs.

This Forbes magazine’s headline says Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine to our brains. Is it really true, though?

When you read the actual article, you realize that the only evidence mentioned in the story is a small-scale lab experiment on rats.

The findings could be applicable to human beings but as of its writing, there is no definite evidence of Oreo’s influence on our brains. We cannot and should not say anything conclusive because we don’t know the truth yet.

This may not be the most significant example of provisional truths but I believe you can see how news reporters still make stories during the truth-finding process and sensationalize it in some cases.

Finding the truth is like completing a jigsaw puzzle. You don’t get the full image until the last piece fits into place. It takes time.

In the context of news literacy, it is important for us to remember that all of us, including journalists and scientists, put wrong jigsaw pieces together in the process.

Good journalists should have verified all the facts and tell the best obtainable version of the truth when their stories get to us.

Smart news consumers should know that the truth is provisional and the story could change in the future.

If you want to know the truth, you can’t be a passive news audience. You should actively keep following the topics and issues you care about overtime.

You should also demand the news media to investigate the stories further.

My colleague, for one, told me that he would really like to know the truth about whether Oreos are addictive to humans. He is a father of two kids who simply love eating cookies.

Activity: Evidence in journalism

Step 1: As shown in the video, evaluate the following items as evidence. Is it direct, solid evidence or arm’s length?

  1. Eyewitness photos and video clips uploaded on the internet.
  2. An anonymous police department clerk who has overheard a rumor that the police officer who fired the shot has been suffering from severe depression.
  3. medical record of the officer in question.
  4. An expert in criminology who specializes in police shooting has also commented on the incident, even though he is not directly involved in the investigation.
  5. medical doctor who treated the officer in question in the past. She doesn’t think his mental health was a factor in the incident.
  6. The preliminary investigation report with the result of a blood test.
  7. The officer’s Facebook status update.

Step 2: Tell students that they are working as news reporters. This is breaking news and they need to report on the incident on Twitter. Have them work in groups and ask them to come up with a Tweet that informs the public.

Step 3: Compare the tweets as a class and discuss which one is better and why.

Note: If our past experience is anything to go by, there will be some students who would write that the officer’s mental condition is, or could be, related to the incident while others would argue that such inconclusive information must not be mentioned at this stage.

Some would argue that quoting an official source (the interim blood test results) is a journalistic obligation in this case while others would say it could give wrong ideas about mental dipressions and could even potentially be harmful.

The important thing for the instructors is to remind the students that thinking about the right way to report this itself is what we need in our community even though there is no absolute conclusion everyone, even professional journalists, can agree on in this case.

Evidence evaluation: Questions to ask yourself 

  • Is this direct evidence or an arm’s length?
  • Is it reliable evidence in this context? 
  • Where does this evidence (a statistical figure, for instance) in the story come from?
  • Can I find the original copy of the evidence (a medical study, for instance) this news report is citing on the internet? 
  • Do I know enough to reach a conclusion with the evidence in the story?

Limitations in journalism

In reality, there are many limitations to what news reporters can do. That’s why in our news literacy course our focus is what the news audience can, and should, do to evaluate the authenticity of the information in the news. 

You may ask, “if journalists are doing their jobs, shouldn’t everything in news reports be fact-based and verified?”

Unfortunately, the process of verification is inherently hard and time-consuming. 

When we think about the practical side of the day-to-day news operation, we can understand why.

Journalists are constantly racing against time. It’s not unusual for a reporter to have multiple assignments and very tight deadlines on any given day. In today’s minute-by-minute news cycle some journalists are constantly under pressure to keep updating their news reports, as the new information becomes available without having much time to verify it. 

The current economic situations surrounding the media industry around the world are also making it difficult for news organizations to put in resources in investigative work that requires time and money. 

As a result, some journalists rely heavily on press releases for a quick turnaround. Some reporters resort to a ‘he-said-she-said’ journalism, which is easier to produce. Some are taken in by hoaxes because they don’t double-check the facts. 

Others give up verification and present their sources’ words as if they were all factual.

Sources are especially important to mention here. In an ideal world, journalists include only the most reliable sources, but often such sources are not readily available for an interview before the deadline. 

Given the time constraints reporters have, in reality, often the best journalists can manage is to find someone who can talk about the issues and comment on the news event even though that person might not be the best source to gain a deeper insight or corroborate facts. 

We discussed the nature of journalistic truth and how we should evaluate the facts and evidence in the news. In the future lesson, we will also discuss a systematic way to evaluate quotes and soundbites in the news. 

But for now, I would like to continue our theme. Why does the process of verification fail? Time constraints and source’s availability are not the only reason. 

In many countries around the world, press freedom is limited or does not exist. Journalists cannot freely gather information and talk to people. Laws, regulations, and other political constraints are there to prevent reporters from digging up facts and verifying information. 

The complexity of some news topics is another factor that makes verification hard. For example, accurately reporting the effect of a nuclear accident probably requires substantial knowledge in related science and engineering, because without it, what journalists can understand from interviews with experts could be limited and fragmented.

If an airplane goes missing mysteriously, like the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 did in 2014, many journalists will rush to tell the story; even though they have little knowledge in aviation technology, global air travel systems, and other related fields that would be necessary to explain what has gone wrong accurately. 

During the massive street protest led by university students that lasted for two months in Hong Kong in 2014 there were rumors, misinformation, and problematic news reports everywhere. Students at our university set up this Facebook page to post only the information and news items that they could independently verify. 

This is the way the audience should deal with the news now. The burden of verification is on both journalists and the news audience if we would like to fully understand what’s going on in our society. 

We need to know how and why the process of verification often fails.

We need to be aware that nothing is fail-proof. Even peer-reviewed scientific studies published in academic journals could turn out to be problematic. 

Today’s process of verification starts with the journalists but it doesn’t end there. News consumers should also review and verify information, especially before taking any action based on the information on the news reports.