We Americans seem to like to think we’re all independent thinkers, capable of rationally divining truth from fiction. We take this assumption from our own viewpoints, thinking that “because I can tell when someone is stating a non-truth, everyone should be able to do so as well.” Yet, as everyone should agree, opposing viewpoints can cloud what the truth really is.
Why do I bring this up? It’s because of the recent loud vilification of “the media” by Donald Trump, and the ensuing debate about “the media” as source of truth (ironically reported on extensively by “the media”), and moreover, the ongoing, centuries-long distrust of journalists and “the media” by people who believe they aren’t being reported on accurately.
My point here is that it isn’t the fault of any individual journalist that journalism isn’t trusted or perceived as accurate. It’s because we as consumers don’t do our jobs adequately in consuming multiple sources of journalism in order to get a more complete view of the truth. We’re allowing “the media” to spoon feed us one side of a story, and accept that as truth, when the truth is almost always much broader. I mean, when it comes to a horrible movie, or bad piece of music, we don’t declare all movies or music as bad, do we?
Let me explain. But first, why did I just refer to “the media” in quotes up there? It’s because the terms “journalism” (or “journalist”) and “the media” are used interchangeably, and that’s a huge inaccuracy that needs to be corrected. To be clear: “journalism” is the act of reporting the news. A “journalist” is someone who does that reporting. And “the media” is the means by which the reporting is done (i.e. writing (print, internet), video (TV, Internet), audio (radio, internet)). A media company owns the airwaves or websites or paper that the journalism is carried on, but those same airwaves, websites, and paper is used to carry other things, some of which can’t necessarily be considered factual truth (i.e. advertising, commentary, opinion, fictional stories, poetry, humor, and the like.) As a result, I’ll be referring to journalists as such in place of the Trumpian phrase “the media.”
I began with the assumption at the top because it’s true. Truth is subjective. If truth were purely objective, there wouldn’t be any need for court trials, arguments, disagreements, contract law, differing religions, racism, sexism, ageism, philosophy, economic theory, sociology, and huge blocks of creativity in the arts. Interpretation would be unnecessary because all would be truth. And education would be a breeze because all would be truth. The entire world would be binary because things are either a universal truth or they aren’t.
But we all know that what’s true to me is not necessarily truth to someone else. And the simple reason for that is that I, like all individuals, can interpret, process, and analyze information to determine what seems most plausible. But this can be a big problem in this debate over what makes accurate journalism.
We are all consumers of information. The simple act of purchasing one newspaper over another, or choosing one TV news program to watch over another, or clicking one news link online rather than another is an individual choice that will inherently decide what the consumer decides is truth when it comes to that particular news story. And that choice is already influenced by a person’s background and belief system.
Take this example: an alien spacecraft lands on a road equidistant from two farmhouses. Farmer Brown and Farmer White each see the landing from their respective houses, and go to investigate. They arrive to find a strange alien standing on the center line of the road. It has multiple limbs, multiple eyes and ears, and a strange glowing aura. Each only sees the alien from opposite sides, and the alien never turns to show any other side to them. It just leaves the scene and heads down the road in the dark, never to be seen again by the two farmers.
When the two journalists and one police officer arrive to investigate and interview the farmers, it is determined that the alien may be green, has two to four eyes, one to four noses, four to eight ears, and two to four arms. Why isn’t the reporting precise? Because of viewpoints. Farmer Brown saw a green alien with two eyes on the left side, one nose on the front, four ears on the left of its head, and two arms. Farmer White is color blind, so doesn’t know what color the alien was, but saw that it had one eye on the right side of its head, two visible noses, two ears, and one arm. And one of the journalists wasn’t able to interview the other farmer because of a deadline.
So what’s the truth? The truth is something that no one has seen yet. But neither of the farmers is wrong. They just don’t have all of the information.
Okay, how does this alien relate to the Trump story this week?
Journalists have one core duty: to ask questions and report what they learn about something. If they ask the exact same questions to the exact same people, all journalists should come up with the same story. But they don’t. That’s virtually impossible because they’re individuals who think differently from one another. Their questions may be fundamentally asking the same thing, but they’re phrased differently so that the responders give different answers. And while they may try to be impartial, they are human and have their own viewpoints as well.
But we as consumers of news and information have the luxury of immediate access to reporting on the same story by multiple journalists in a variety of media sources. Yet many people don’t pursue alternative reporting, because other sources don’t match our perceived truth established by our viewpoint (i.e. we don’t want to hear something that may go against our preconceptions of an issue–it’s okay, that’s a human trait, but fight it!).
So who is responsible for getting the complete story and assembling that story into truth? Here’s where Trump and I won’t see eye-to-eye. It isn’t the journalists or “the media.” It’s us as consumers. We need to not be so myopic and lazy in our quest for information. We need to accept that there are different viewpoints and that they aren’t necessarily wrong…They’re just different. And understanding other viewpoints is sometimes a chore, but it’s work that must be done in order to see the holistic view.
A journalist who you don’t trust isn’t “a sleaze.” In the case of the recent Trump story, journalists were doing their jobs: asking questions to find out if money donated for a purpose actually made it to their intended target. But it’s true that some journalists may be lazy, inaccurate, or bad at asking questions. The only way to prove it is to get the other reports on the same story to gather enough information to at least develop a sense of what the real truth may be.
By broadening our consumption of journalism, we can see the other side of the story–or the other side of the alien in my example above–and eventually perhaps see the whole truth.