If America prides itself on anything, it is our Bill of Rights, 10 amendments to the Constitution to ensure that certain human freedoms are protected from government interference. At the top of the 10 is the Free Exercise Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The right to speak freely and publish without prior restraint is paneled between the right to religious freedom and peaceable assembly and petition for redress. The Amendment has been tested thoroughly in appeals to the Supreme Court, and restricted: it is illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater, but you can condemn the government without legal consequences. Nothing requires you to write or tell the truth.
Truth in journalism has been established historically by professional ethics. The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) articulates its code under four pillars: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable. An ethical journalist is honest, seeks all sources for a story (including invitations to persons mentioned by others to tell their side), shows compassionate sensitivity and taste, avoids or discloses conflicts of interest and demonstrates a willingness to hear grievances and correct as needed. There are deeper explanations – along with some excellent discussions of current and consistent issues in the ethics of journalism on the SPJ website.
However, the truth of journalism in America and the “free press” is that freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns and runs the press. From Guttenberg until Tesla, the phrase was literal. When news and information began broadcast operations, freedom of the press spread to the operator of a transmitter, and beginning in the late 1960s, expanded to the person who published on the Internet. The definition of truth is in the hands of individuals, writers and commentators who research, edit and report news.
Every word has a definition, and the definition is variable. Edit can mean deciding “this is important and I will include it; this does not pertain and I will leave it in my notes.” News can mean, “this is worthy of dissemination, that is not.” Journalists report what they see. Good journalists will walk all the way around a story, seeking to supplement their observations with sources on all sides. Stories I hear on NPR from war correspondents and others (such as Wednesday’s conversation on Talk of the Nation with veteran Latin American correspondent Chris Hedges) demonstrate a combination of luck and courage in seeking out the “truth” to be gained from dictators, insurgents, combatants and thugs on either side of an active civil war or tyrannical repression.
Who Owns the Truth
If reportage reflects individual perspective and distribution of the perspective is controlled by a private entity or public administration, truth represents an organization’s standards and often its point of view. Mainstream news organizations endeavor to establish and maintain credibility – spinning a story one direction or another, establishing news values that seem to advocate a partisan or vested interest can erode the news organization’s credibility.
A news operation that has clearly shown partisan (and that may be an inadequate word) colors claims to be “fair and balanced” while a local news organization that demonstrates a relatively even hand admits to broadcasting “news and views.” (Note: I did not have to say Fox News to implicate them, and blaming Fox News for bias in journalism may be unfair – see this Economist analysis.) In a democracy, we can expect a news organization to represent its ownership. When newspapers were the primary source of news and information and there were multiple papers covering community and nation, we could look to one paper for left leaning coverage and another for right leaning coverage.
So we should not be surprised when a news organization shows their vested interests. Corporations who own the organization have more than broadcast channels in their portfolios. Their profits depend on specific policies – taxes and regulations decided by legislatures and local, state and federal executive initiatives. A judicial branch that is relatively independent, but selected by either appointive or elective decision, oversees the legislatures and administrations. All of the decisions that affect the conduct of business in our lives are subject to political action, and politics are influenced by the information we access.
That brings us to Stephen Colbert. In 2005, Colbert introduced a new word to the lexicon. I thought the “truthiness” initially referred to selective editing of the news to reflect a specific understanding – such as doubts about the human causes of climate change. But in the original “truthiness” segment, part of Colbert’s excellent “Tonight’s Word” series, he’s quoting President Bush’s rationale for nominating Harriett Meyers to the Supreme Court. “I know her heart,” Bush said. And truthiness – in its original 2005 definition – refers to truths you know in your heart despite what you might find in books or other actual sources.
Public Broadcasting’s Well-Earned Credibility
I thought, at one time, that public broadcasting was independent of corporate influence. “Frontline is the reason God invented television,” has often flowed from my brain onto page or conversation. However, both public television and public radio are sponsored. Their news and information programs often follow the same stories we hear on commercial outlets, and my radical friends have shown me more than one occasion when even Frontline, my treasured paragon, overlooks important sides of the story (namely, the March 2011 Fukushima disaster). I am looking forward to someone commenting and correcting me about the balance demonstrated by our public broadcasting journalists.
What that comment will say is that public broadcasting and other news organizations – the broadcast networks, CNN, NY Times and others – conduct their business with hard and fast news standards. Their dedication to balanced coverage has demonstrated courageous independence over the years, and they deserve our trust. Other commenters will choose one or more of the examples I cited and declaim their reputations for unbiased communications.
Most of the writing I do for money is in another field – marketing communications and public relations. My name is usually not associated with these endeavors, and I am not representing my own opinions or interests. I am paid by a company or organization to represent their point of view. Public Relations has its own set of ethics and standards, but they reflect a similar idealistic objective: to represent the truth or suffer the slings of eroded credibility. The primary difference lies in the fact that PR professionals represent their clients, and the vested interest is transparent. I will return to this subject in a future column.
Find Your Own Truth
The only way to find your own truth is to do your own research. You and I can’t go to Syria and determine which side should prevail, nor have much control over how events in Syria or anywhere else in the world affect our lives. We can’t even attend every city council meeting, much less the sessions of Congress, the United Nations or a foreign government’s deliberations. We depend on news sources, but we don’t have to depend on a single news source.
Don’t accept the first “truth” you see or hear. Don’t freeze your dial on any single channel for information. My mama told me, you have to click around. Find multiple sources that you can trust to deliver an honest viewpoint, including their own politics. When you have a chance to influence action – such as casting your vote – read the “public relations” information presented by all sides of an issue. Make an informed decision, and share it with others. Freedom of speech belongs to the speaker – exercise your right, and make every word count.
San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing clear, compelling content for advertising, non-profit development and corporate communications. Every Word Counts appears every Sunday in The Rivard Report – click here to see a list of previous columns.