The concept of “truth” is central to journalism, and audiences expect journalists to provide truthful accounts and analyses of recent developments. And, yet, truth can be a very messy thing that is difficult to grasp.
According to the realism perspective, truth is a judgment that accurately describes, or corresponds with, the way the world actually is. That is, under this perspective, truth is a universal reality that is separate from subjective human perspectives. Most journalists in the United States subscribe to the realism perspective. They typically argue that “facts” exist, and that conveying these facts is an important aspect of doing journalism and of getting at the “truth.”
However, “facts” can be tricky things themselves. For example, consider the unemployment rate in the United States right now. One might think that to be a pretty simple, measurable “fact.” And, yet, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the primary body charged with measuring the unemployment rate in the United States, offers six different calculations of it. Its primary calculation refers to the percentage of the labor force that is without a job and has actively looked for work within the past four weeks. However, it also considers the percentage of the labor force that has been unemployed for 15 weeks or longer to be a valid measure, as well as a the percentage of the labor force that is unemployed and is not actively looking for work because of discouragement due to economic conditions.
In short, when audiences say they “just want the facts,” the question becomes: Which facts?
Subscribing to this more critical view does not require a person to reject the idea of “facts,” or to suggest that they are meaningless or entirely relative. But it does call attention to two things. First, there are often multiple ways to measure complex facts. (In contrast, it is typically easier to measure something simple like the number of students enrolled in a journalism course.) Second, journalists have to work within the confines of time and space — a story can only be so long — and this limitation naturally requires them to select some facts at the expense of others. Put another way, they rarely have the ability to list all the different permutations of the unemployment rate; they focus on the ‘best’ one.
Moreover, journalism involves more than just listing facts. It typically requires journalists to make sense of those facts, in order to help their audiences understand how certain information fits into a broader context and what the implications of those facts might be. Indeed, this is the very basis of framing theory and the sense-making function of journalism.
It is important to be cautious of arguments that “facts” do not exist, that “truth isn’t truth,” or that we should embrace “alternative facts,” though. While the critical view described above promotes inquisition, simplistic rejections of factual knowledge are often made in bad faith, in order to make competing measures of truth (or interpretations of it) seem equal when they are not actually equally supported by the evidence. This is especially true when people in positions of power (or grifters looking to develop a following) urge people to dismiss unfavorable or inconvenient information. Instead, it is important that audiences (and journalists) think critically about how “facts” were arrived at, and to avoid reflexively accepting or rejecting them.
Journalists’ inherent need to be selective often leads to allegations of journalistic bias, especially when audiences perceive news products to deviate from their worldviews and preconceptions. For example, in the United States, there is a widely held belief in public circles that journalistic media have a liberal bias. (To be clear, non-partisan studies of media bias have historically found little evidence of this. While journalists in the U.S. generally hold more liberal values, the professional emphasis on neutrality, balance, and a systematic approach to newsgathering limits one-sided coverage.)
Journalistic bias can be defined as prejudice toward certain ideas, issues, perspectives, or groups or individuals in the production and distribution of journalistic content. Allegations of journalistic bias often fall into one or more of the following three categories. The first, issue bias, pertains to a proclivity toward certain kinds of issues, such as an overemphasis on crime or immigration. The second, framing bias, refers to the propensity to frame issues through particular prisms, such as the threat immigrants might pose (as opposed to the benefits they might offer), or to routinely use certain language, such as “illegal immigrants” instead of “undocumented immigrants.” The third, source bias, refers to the differential treatment of a story depending on who the main actors are — as with offering more positive coverage to members of a certain political party. Source bias can also refer to a proclivity toward giving certain kinds of sources a larger (or any) voice within a news product, such as a journalist being more likely to quote government officials than activists or demonstrators.
Connecting all three of those categories is visibility bias, which involves the amount of attention or prominence given to certain kinds of issues, frames, or sources. For example, although a journalist may quote an equal number of sources from two opposing parties, they may routinely offer longer quotes in more prominent parts of a news story (e.g., near the top, which more people are likely to read) to one of the two parties. Similarly, visibility bias may become apparent when prime-time shows on cable news networks focus on stories about immigrant misdeeds, with more positive coverage of immigrants relegated to less-watched daytime shows.
In order to combat allegations of bias, journalists often claim to be neutral and to offer “a view from nowhere” — that is, to offer a perspective without a position or that takes no side. A common way to enact that claim is to try to occupy a middle ground by simply capturing and broadcasting opposing viewpoints, and trying to give equal weight to competing sides of an issue. Crucially, such attempts take care to not convey the journalist’s own opinion on a matter.
This proclivity toward neutrality and balance is, itself, a form of bias, and it is especially prevalent among journalists in places like the United States. This is not to say that such an approach to doing journalism is bad but rather that it represents a predisposition toward a particular way of presenting news.
There are downsides to that approach, though. In trying to be neutral and balanced, a journalist may promote false balance by assigning equal blame or acclaim when one side is more culpable or deserving of it. For example, by taking the position that “all politicians lie” or that “both sides share blame” in order to appear neutral, a journalist may obfuscate the fact that some politicians make more verifiably false claims than others, or that one side is more responsible for an outcome (e.g., by being less willing to negotiate a compromise). Put another way, journalists distort reality when promoting a false balance and they thus do a disservice to truth — and to news audiences.
Bad-faith institutional actors, including some political candidates and public officials, have taken advantage of this “view from nowhere” approach through concerted efforts to “work the refs,” especially in recent decades. If journalists are seen to be arbiters of truth — much as referees are the arbiters of rules within a game — then subjects of news coverage (e.g., a politician) can allege news media to be biased against them in order to intimidate journalists from scrutinizing their claims. (After all, critical evaluations by journalists can be pointed to as ‘further evidence’ of the alleged bias.) This is important because false or inaccurate claims carried by trusted journalistic outlets are granted legitimacy — that is, they may be seen as true (or be evaluated less skeptically) by audiences who presume journalists to have filtered out untruthful information.
One element found in most definitions of “truth” is accuracy, or a focus on precision and the avoidance of errors. Accuracy is indeed central to journalism, and many aspiring journalists have failed a college assignment because they submitted a news story with a factual error in it.
However, accuracy is not, on its own, enough for satisfying truth. For example, it may be accurate to report that one person said that 75% of peer-reviewed studies about climate change say it is not a real phenomenon. After all, they may have said such a thing. However, it is not true that such a proportion of peer-reviewed studies say that. Similarly, it may be accurate to point a camera at a small crowd of people and zoom in so as to have them fill the frame, or to zoom out so as to make it look sparse. After all, neither picture was doctored or manipulated after the fact in any way. However, the resulting image’s connotation that there was a large or small crowd may be an ‘untrue’ depiction of the event. Finally, it would be equally accurate to show a mug shot of a dejected person in a crime story or their happy, upstanding family photo. However, it can be difficult to ascertain which photo best represents the truth about what that individual is like.
In short, accuracy must be supplemented by commitment to truth. We can call that commitment “truth-seeking.” This approach views truth as more of a process wherein the journalist aims to approximate truth as best as they can. Truth-seeking typically involves an objective approach to journalism, where journalists seek to systematically observe and record developments; interview sources with intimate knowledge about that development (like eye-witnesses); verify claims by seeking out generally accepted facts and official documents; and ultimately produce a story with the most truthful (plausible) representation of that development.
The process of truth-seeking recognizes that journalists are inherently biased. Put another way, it accepts the proposition that it is impossible for journalists to be unbiased because of their backgrounds and the structural constraints they work within. However, it recognizes that by systematically adopting what are regarded as best practices in journalism, journalists can mitigate some of those biases and not fall into traps like false balance, all the while striving toward the ambitious goal of reproducing truth.
It is important to note, however, that in some countries, journalistic outlets are openly biased and explicitly reject the values of neutrality and balance. For example, in countries like Pakistan and Indonesia, journalists typically believe that openly advocating for social change and staking clear positions regarding which side in a dispute has the superior argument — and sometimes substantiating those positions primarily through intuition or their agreement with ethical or religious principles — is a better way of serving truth. Put another way, different journalistic cultures approach truth-seeking in different ways.
Facts are not ‘natural’ things that just ‘exist.’ Journalistic actors (and audiences) should therefore critically evaluate facts and approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism.
There are multiple forms of journalistic bias, such as issue bias, framing bias, and source bias.
In the United States, journalists typically strive to appear neutral and to offer balanced accounts. However, bad-faith actors have taken advantage of this approach in various ways. This has forced journalists to reconsider whether that approach still serves citizens well.
Accuracy is, by itself, insufficient for getting at the truth. However, it is an essential component of truth.
Journalists will typically strive for truth-seeking by systematically adopting best practices in journalism, such as interviewing multiple people, verifying their accounts, and offering the best approximation of truth.