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In defense of the journalist
May 3, 2023
What is truth?
While it seems to be a simple question on its face, it asks one to not only consider a multifaceted question with many possible answers, but due to the way we commonly use the term, it seems to also demand a simple answer.
But in the information age we currently live in, with so much information available to us at any given time, we suffer from an overload, causing our brains to think less critically about the information we’re receiving.
In the field of logic, a subset of philosophy, truth is a binary value. This means something is either true or false with its “truth value” remaining unchanged without additional input or variables, i.e., 1+1=2 is a true statement.
This idea of “it’s either true or it isn’t” is typically how the term is colloquially used as well, which is perfectly fine for the day to day facts of our existence, like whether the stoplight is green or not or whether one’s coffee is too hot to drink.
The difficulty arises when we begin using this binary thinking in more complex discussions, especially regarding social or philosophical topics like whether a human fetus in gestation is a person.
The underlying issue is a simplification of a complex topic that relies on preconceived notions in order to force what’s known commonly as a “false dichotomy,” or a forced choice between two options when other possible options exist.
But, with instant access to a universe of information at our fingertips, we often rely on these false dichotomies to make sense of the world around us; to that end, we are forced to rely on individuals whose job it is to divine truth from fiction, enter the journalist.
The job of a journalist is not only to take the necessary pains to verify information, but to also present the information in a manner that accurately portrays the reality of the circumstances being reported on.
This process is labor intensive and quality work can often take weeks or months to investigate thoroughly before a story is even presented to the public. As a result, it becomes necessary to pick and choose which stories get presented, leading to an inherent bias, typically toward whatever audience the platform is trying to appeal to.
But where does the money for these platforms come from? Much like the broader labor market, there are a variety of different models that operate, including everything from art and pop culture magazines to local news and politics and everything in between. Each operates with their own code of ethics and business model, meaning everyone competes to stand out in their own way to secure a clientele willing to pay them for the service.
As such, sometimes platforms can take this idea to heart in a negative way, cultivating a base of readership or viewership by creating content specifically designed to appeal to what an audience wants to hear as part of a positive feedback loop reinforcing dishonest reporting in favor of guaranteed income in a process known as audience capture.
As an example, Fox News has recently made headlines for settling for nearly $800 million in a defamation case with Dominion, a company contracted to aid voting during the 2020 Presidential election, in which the integrity of the platform was called into serious legal question.
After Trump lost his reelection bid, he blamed his loss on a coordinated effort by nefarious actors to “steal” the election, with a particular fixation on Dominion’s voting machines having software designed to switch away or delete votes intended for him.
Internal messaging released during the litigation of the lawsuit revealed popular hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham knew the disinformation they were spreading about the election was incorrect, but Rupert Murdoch, owner and CEO of Fox, had them continue spreading it out of fear of losing viewership and, consequently, advertising revenue.
While the act of simply feeding an audience what they want to hear is not criminal, it is widely considered to be unethical. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has a freely available list of their code of ethics, with the primary four tenants including: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, be accountable and transparent.
Though the actions of the reporters and anchors at Fox reek of intellectual dishonesty, they are not representative of the entirety of the field of journalism.
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