“There are two sides to every story,” says an old and popular adage that has, for many years, guided the practice of journalism in the world.
On every issue, journalists have always been expected to find and present differing views and opinions, present them to the general public on a balanced scale without bias or prejudice and trust the public to make its choices based on the different arguments of both sides.
While the idea of listening to every view and allowing every voice to be heard may sound appealing, the obsession with finding a balance in reportage and being objective is perhaps making journalists forgetful of their core mandate: the pursuit of basic truth. And it is time that journalism be structured around truth.
The balance model is an unfortunate result of the practice of extreme objectivity in journalism and a loose understanding of what objectivity really is. The term objectivity can be traced back to Walter Lippmann, an influential American journalist of his time, who, fed up with the abundance of biased news reportage, called for the “scientific” approach of impartiality in the gathering and reporting of news, according to the American Press Institute.
Journalists try to offer equal opportunities for groups with different views to explain their reasoning. However, some groups of people begin to abuse the opportunity to share their views by providing misinformation on several issues.
Most journalists, in a show of their misunderstanding of what objectivity entails and perhaps in fear of being characterized as impartial, recuse themselves from such conversations, failing to draw the line on what are considered acceptable arguments. Take, for example, the birther conspiracy theories claiming that former President Barack Obama was not a naturally born citizen.
The fact that such a claim dominated news cycles for days speaks volumes about the flaws with the objectivity mantra that journalists have heralded for years. Obama released his birth certificate before the 2008 elections, and the only reason why journalists still reported these birther claims was to provide balance on the subject at hand and to be seen as objective and impartial.
This was not the objectivity Lippmann had in mind when he said, “good reporting requires the exercise of the highest scientific virtues.”
By comparing journalism to the scientific method, Lippmann envisioned a journalistic process where the gathering and reporting of the news was not only impartial but also characterized by systematic observation and rigorous verification of what was reported.
In the age of increasing partisanship, it has become a matter of great necessity that journalists move beyond attempting objective reporting to a more reliable reporting process that tells the truth when it is known.
Take, for example, the debate over anthropogenic climate change — the idea that human activities are influencing changes in our climate. There are still people who believe that climate change is not happening, or at least that it’s not caused by human activities, even though there is compelling scientific evidence to suggest otherwise.
When reporting on this issue, journalists should have no problem with telling the truth that the world’s climate is changing. The truth must be told, however unpleasant it may appear to a certain group of people.
The American Press Association provides the gold standard definition for what principles journalists must hold dear: The obligation of journalists is the pursuit of truth. The obligation of a journalist is not to their employers or a religious or social group, but it is to an unflinching desire to pursue and tell the truth in whichever form it may be and whatever consequences it may bring.
Truth in journalism matters because it helps provide a coherent and standard society. Imagine living in a society where there is no standard of acceptable behavior or consensus on what is considered true and untrue.
However, there are legitimate concerns raised when we request that journalists go beyond objectivity and tell the truth when it is knowable. People argue that placing such responsibility on journalists will allow them further opportunity to be inherently biased in their pursuit of truth because it will allow journalists to define what they see as true and untrue.
On most issues, it’s almost impossible to define truth. However, most people will agree to Aristotle’s famous definition of truth: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” Simply put: Truth is measured by the conformance of an event to reality.
By this definition, every issue can be classified as true or untrue based on its relation to reality. A statement should be accepted as true only based on its conformance to reality. This would create a standard for what is considered acceptable and unacceptable.
It remains true that we cannot forcibly change an opinion held by an individual or a group, and there will always be people who refuse to accept the truth no matter the evidence in favor of it. There will perhaps continue to be people who believe that Obama was not the first African-American president of the United States and that he was not born in America.
While these opinions cannot be changed forcibly, journalists owe a responsibility to continue telling the truth in favor of being objective and appealing to people with such ideas, because the more we pursue truth, the closer we come to a just, truthful society.
Ebenezer Mensah PO ’23 is a guest writer from Ghana, a small country in West Africa. He loves to speak about science and religion.