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Summary:

In the past, the truth about a social or political event was whatever the newspaper or the TV news said it was. But now that anyone can publish their views, the process of arriving at the truth is a lot more complicated — and even more important.

When former New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked earlier this year whether reporters for the paper should be “truth vigilantes,” the response was immediate and decisive: of course they should, readers said — after all, wasn’t that what journalists were supposed to be doing in the first place? It clearly is, but as Clay Shirky and others participating in a Poynter Institute forum pointed out on Tuesday, that job has gotten infinitely harder as the number of information sources has increased thanks to the web and social media. Checking specific facts may have gotten easier, now that anyone can do it, but is reaching any kind of consensus about the capital T truth even possible any more?

The forum, entitled “Journalistic Ethics in a Digital Age,” was a co-venture between the Poynter Institute and CraigConnects — a project created by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark to increase public trust and accountability in journalism — and included a series of panels involving Shirky, Digital First Media CEO John Paton, Microsoft social researcher Danah Boyd and others, as well as an invitation-only audience of media industry luminaries such as author Jeff Jarvis and digital-media veteran Dan Gillmor. The event was livestreamed, and Poynter also created a live-blog of the session in Storify.

With no gatekeepers, who decides what is true?

In the not-too-distant past, Shirky said, we could look to trusted media oracles like former TV anchor Walter Cronkite to determine what the truth was about any given media event, but that was only possible because there were so few sources of media or journalism at the time. This artificial scarcity of information has been exploded by what Om has called social media’s “democratization of distribution,” and the result is that there are literally thousands of different versions of the truth about any given news story, Shirky said. And without gatekeepers, who determines which is correct?

As Shirky noted in an essay that was published as a companion piece to the Poynter forum, the fact that anyone can make themselves heard about virtually any topic — something that was never possible before the web and social media came along — makes it a much more complicated task to arrive at any kind of actual consensus about the truth. As he put it:

Here’s what the “post-fact” literature has right: the Internet allows us to see what other people actually think. This has turned out to be a huge disappointment. When anyone can say anything they like, we can’t even pretend most of us agree on the truth of most assertions any more.

In effect, Shirky suggests that most political and social discourse has become — or is in the process of becoming — like a giant chat room, where debate never ends and anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can take part, including trolls and those with hidden agendas, and everything in between. So how are journalists supposed to make sense of all this? The Poynter panel mostly agreed on one thing: namely, that is has become exponentially harder than it used to be, and traditional journalism may not be up to the task. As Shirky put it: “The strategies developed for reporting the truth in the 20th century simply don’t work any more.”

For one thing, said the Pew Research Center’s Tom Rosentiel, newsrooms are resource-constrained in a way they never have been before, as newspapers and other media outlets try to cut back on costs. So a journalistic entity that would once have done a number of things well — including plain reporting, investigative reporting, in-depth fact-checking and so on — now has to pick which of those to focus on. And economic constraints mean that most outlets are going to choose the one that is the most profitable or the most appealing to advertisers, or that is simply the fastest.

Defining truth requires journalism to be more open

And it’s not enough to rely on non-profit entities like Politifact or FactCheck.org to do the heavy lifting, said panelist Adam Hochberg of the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, for the simple reason that these organizations are also beholden to donors and foundations that provide the resources for their work, and that can be just as significant a factor in what gets fact-checked (and how) as any commercial outlet’s relationship with advertisers. In most cases, he said, advertisers who paid for journalism through Sunday supplements didn’t really care much about the content, they just wanted a large audience.

Craig Silverman of Regret The Error noted that admitting mistakes and being open about the process of fact-checking or truth-telling — and the inherently complicated nature of it — could actually increase trust in the media, as opposed to decreasing it. Shirky, meanwhile, said that the whole notion of “objectivity” was something the media came up with in the 1950s and ’60s in order to appeal to a mass audience (and thereby appeal to advertisers), and that it serves no useful purpose any more.

One obvious outcome of what the Poynter panel was discussing is that defining the truth is no longer something that is done by professional journalists in isolation, but something that only emerges over time, through a process that involves both journalists and what Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience.” Which is why I’ve argued that fact-checking of all kinds — both specific facts and larger questions of truth — is something that is best done in public. In a sense it has always been that way, it’s just easier to see now while it’s actually happening.

Arriving at the truth may be a lot more complicated than it used to be, because there are more moving parts and more sources than ever, but in the end it is probably closer to the real thing than what our traditional media gatekeepers have gotten used to providing in the past.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Pavel Ignatov and Flickr user Jeremy King

  1. It used to be that we would argue about facts. Now we argue about interpretations. The former kind were easier to resolve.

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    1. There are no facts, only interpretations — I think Nietzsche said that :-)

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  2. This is a great piece, thanks for sharing it. This is an issue of great interest to us, and we recently commented on it as well. Many thanks again.

    http://improperganda.com/2012/10/01/life-inside-the-bubble-dude-whered-my-facts-go/

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  3. To clarify, I wasn’t talking specifically about fact-checking organizations when I spoke about the influence of funders on non-profit journalism organizations. I was speaking more about non-profit investigative reporting centers, who may struggle to balance their independence with the preference of some foundations to fund journalism that supports the foundation’s mission.

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  4. Reblogged this on #Hashtag – Thoughts on Law, Technology, the Internet, and Social Media and commented:
    Journalism and the truth: More complicated than it has ever been
    When former New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked earlier this year whether reporters for the paper should be “truth vigilantes,” the response was immediate and decisive: of course they should, readers said — after all, wasn’t that what journalists were supposed to be doing in the first place? It clearly is, but as Clay Shirky and others participating in a Poynter Institute forum pointed out on Tuesday, that job has gotten infinitely harder as the number of information sources has increased thanks to the web and social media. Checking specific facts may have gotten easier, now that anyone can do it, but is reaching any kind of consensus about the capital T truth even possible any more?

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  5. This confusion came about by the journalists interspersing the facts with opinions. If the journalists had just stuck to reporting the facts, we would not have reached to this. Your opinion is still your truth. People should have the freedom to formulate their own opinion based on the facts. Facts is really information as it unfolds. Therefore, people would be free to change their truths. The journalists themselves created this ball of confusion of seeking to create truths for the readers.

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  6. Just because someone says something does not make what they said truthful. For a journalist to report what has been said without also checking to see if what has been said is inaccurate makes the situation worse because they give legitimacy to lies. If journalists aren’t going to bother to sift through the BS, then let’s eliminate them and just put microphones everywhere without the filters.

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  7. Transparency is the new objectivity. Accountability is more vital than ever. Openness to other views is essential. That’s the TAO of Journalism: http://taoofjournalism.org. Embrace it or you’re doomed….

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  8. I don’t believe I can accept this assertion: “And economic constraints mean that most outlets are going to choose the one that is the most profitable or the most appealing to advertisers, or that is simply the fastest.”

    Also, the key to at least approaching the truth or better, understanding the interrelationships of the various components of an issue or event, will be found by talking to all the “legitimate” sources, but certainly NOT by following the pundits nor following those people without some code of ethics.

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  9. Unfortunately, the more we segment ourselves by choosing “channels” of information, the less we have to work to find facts from all channels. Most people move toward pleasure and away from pain in day-to-day living.
    It is pain to miss deadlines or a scoop because we don’t have the sources or resources to get at the facts, so we meet the deadline (and pleasure) but may not have “all” the truth. It is so much easier to call someone we know will give us or get an answer for us than to exhaustively look to all the sides. As Shirky said, it’s complicated to arrive at “one” truth.

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  10. Debra Koontz Traverso Thursday, October 25, 2012

    So sorry, but I quit reading this after the first sentence: “In the past, the truth about a social or political event was whatever the newspaper or the TV news said it was.” That’s truth?!*?! I left journalism years ago because I got tired of newspaper editors encouraging me to put a spin – yes, there’s that word – on the facts. I wanted to enjoy this….even agree with it because I too grow tired of unreliable sources, but let’s not kid ourselves….there is HUGE bias from “professional news jouralists” editors, newspapers, TV etc.

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