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The ‘truth’ … and ‘the news’

A reader recently commented on one of our Facebook posts as follows: “Is the article by the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Why the news is not the truth’ true? Can anyone at the Times-Age answer this question honestly?”

Challenge tentatively accepted.

First of all, it’s worth noting the article in question was written in 1995 by a former journalist and comprises a review of three books by journalists critical of the way their industry was operating.

As such, it’s a critique of several book-length critiques of the way in which the United States’ media was [and wasn’t] functioning 28 years ago – in other words, before the popularisation of the internet fundamentally reshaped the way ‘news’ is produced and consumed.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that, while the writers can be assumed to have insider media knowledge given their journalistic experience, there will also likely be personal blind spots [much like the writer of this column].

That said, the basic thesis is broadly correct – the ‘news’ is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But you knew that already, right?

With the best will in the world, given limited resources, finite time, and the propensity of humans to make mistakes – to name but three of the constraints outlets operate under – it’s a fantasy to believe that many if any news stories are going to be a full and accurate account of every facet of an event, issue, or individual.

Every journalist should obviously strive to be as accurate and impartial as humanly possible in what they report, but even for the majority who do, it can be an uphill battle.

For example, not only has the advent of the internet eaten traditional media’s lunch, revenue-wise [meaning outlets generally have fewer resources available to them] it’s also changed expectations of how, where, and when ‘the news’ is presented [although granted, that’s largely a self-inflicted wound on the part of media that piled online without pausing to ponder the now-obvious downsides of doing so].

There’s also the fact that the rise and rise of the ‘public relations industry’ [i.e, paid propagandists for corporations, governments, special interests etc] mean that those trying to report without fear or favour now have an army of people who often are trying to obstruct them in doing so [in 2013, PR people outnumbered journos in NZ by eight to one – and it’s even more lopsided now].

All of which no doubt sounds like special pleading, although it’s not intended to be. Nor is it an admission that consuming the news is a waste of time.

However, it is a suggestion that one shouldn’t assume that passively following the news is going to give you the full picture.

And if something piques your interest, you’re advised to take a closer look at it yourself [the article that prompted this column, for example].

And if you’re aware of stories that aren’t being covered [or are neglecting to include what you regard as important aspects], then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us – being an actively engaged audience member increases the likelihood that you’ll end up with the media you deserve.

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