Term Paper: Journalism's First Obligation

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Journalism's First Obligation Is To The Truth

Journalism is charged with the responsibility to be make practical sense in all that they report to the general public. This does not mean that they have to make philosophical or absolute sense but in one way or another, it must meet the principle of journalistic truth. This is defined as the process through which journalism professionals assemble facts and deliberately attempt to verify them. This is the first core principle of journalism. It requires journalists to be transparent about their information sources and methods of gathering information and to make their own critical assessment of each source. Even where sources are deemed as reliable by other journalists, the individual journalist must attempt to verify the source for themselves. Especially in a world with expanding sources of information, accuracy of information is the foundation of having good information that can be the subject of journalistic truth. As the flow of information continues to increase, the general public needs to understand the sources of information, and their reliability Kovach and Rosenstiel 42.

Therefore, the journalist must be dedicated to verifying the information and put it into the right context. This paper looks at journalistic truth in depth and presents points-of-view of different scholars and the current situation regarding this concept as it relates to the core principles of journalism.

Journalistic truth

There is absolute unanimity that journalists must tell the truth at all times. However, people have fiddled with the meaning of the word truth to include other elements that are not in the least truthful. News is an essential learning tool for the public and therefore the quality of information must be high. Ward (305)

defines high quality news as that which is reliable and useable. To achieve this, journalists should provide information from reliable sources and present it in a practical manner that the public can understand and use to make informed decisions.

Journalistic truth is defined as getting the right facts from the right source and at the right time. This objective definition of journalistic truth presents the concepts of accuracy, fairness, reliability and timeliness of the information. For information to be useful to the public, the information needs to come at the right time for the public to think about the world beyond their homes and themselves Kovach and Rosenstiel 44.

This is where the concept of reliability and usefulness of information is founded. Journalistic truth creates a sense of security in the public, which grows from their awareness of happenings and use of this information. This is the essence of news.

The truth is sometimes complicated and subjective. Journalists themselves have sometimes not been clear about the meaning of the truth. Journalists by nature are reactive people and not proactive. They strive to be practical and not introspective and philosophical. Their main aim is to provide interesting news to the public to increase their viewership and ratings. However, rather than defend their techniques and ways of finding information, journalists have tended to deny the existence of the truth. They rarely, if ever, reveal their sources. This is founded on different reasons. First is the element of secrecy and exclusivity whereby each journalist tries to get the juiciest bits of the story and not let his or her competitors have the same information. Secondly, this could be as a result of inability to reveal their sources since they might be viewed as suspicious by the public. Other journalist may also use this information to discredit the journalist to reduce his or her ratings Singer 93()

The issue of journalistic truth has its roots in the discussion of objectivity in journalism. Journalists are imagined to be objective individuals since originally they were imagined to have experienced the actual events they were reporting. However, the role of journalists has changed over the years to where they only report events as they understand them from eyewitnesses or other sources. Journalists have failed to articulate this to the public to bring a contemporary understanding of their role as intermediaries between those who experienced the events and the public. To report these events with sincerity, the sources of the story must be vetted to sort truth and fiction.

Journalistic truth in history

Early journalists who were, in effect, messengers of the society were expected to recall happenings with accuracy and reliability. Partly this was driven by the need of the society to get information. Often for these messengers, passing of information was simply fuel to their need to survive. As journalism developed, the hierarchy of truth developed. The hierarchy of truth has information about the fate of the world at the highest level followed by moral truth, which creates the rules of living. Next is allegorical truth that tells the moral of stories. At the bottom is literal truth which is usually meaningless and somewhat irrelevant. During this time, it can be seen that the medieval thinkers concentrated more on controlling the society than enlightening them. They did not want to give them more literal factors but to the political or religious information that created control. Today, journalism is about enlightening the society to articulate the information in a reliable and useful manner for the society.

Journalistic truth as a process

According to Houston (49)

, journalistic truth is easier to understand when it is thought of as a process. It a continuous journey which journalists take to bring an understanding of the story to the public. Once the journalist gets the first hints of the story, it is their work to build it over time and report it to the public as they would understand it. However, this can bring complications and contradictions when different sources, which help to build the information, provide conflicting information. This is where the process of journalistic truth has its key implications. It can prevent misinformation or disinformation and other self-promoting information by stripping the information to its components and finding the truth. The search for the truth is thus a reaction of journalists to the myriad of information they are provided with. Rather than rushing to present every bit of information to the public, they need to add context and interpretation to synthesize the information and ensure that it is verified before it is passed on.

Characteristics of journalistic truth

There are five key characteristics of journalistic truth as identified by Andeweg (60-63)

. The first is that the journalist must be committed to the citizens or public first. This means that the journalist should not seclude him or herself to the newsroom, rather they should look at the public's views and values in order to report with accuracy and reliability. From history, it is seen that journalistic truth can only be a reality when the journalist and the owner of the media company believe in the journalistic values of credibility, reliability, and timeliness. It is only when they believe in these values that they realized their responsibility to the public and articulate the information they gather in a way that meets their responsibility. At the same time, the members of the public also need to understand their right to information and to demand this in a democratic way. They should demand this from journalists, politicians, and corporate managers. This is the only way through which journalists will understand that they are answerable to the members of the public.

The second characteristic is that news corporations should only hire journalists who put citizens and the public first. While it is important for the corporation's owner to understand that journalistic values are important, the journalists must also understand this. Successful news corporations are those that are staffed by journalists who share the same mission and values even if it means putting themselves on the line in order to produce high quality stories for the embers of the public.

The third characteristic that is emerging is that journalists should set for themselves clear standards. These standards should be defined in their journalistic mission and vision and news companies should clearly articulate these standards to their journalists. Many news companies feel the need to create an atmosphere for journalists and business minds to cooperate and through these, they should have clear principles which are understood and by both parties. This will ensure that business people can hold journalists responsible for not meeting these standards and at the same time, journalists can hold business minds responsible if the latter's activities hinder them to meet these responsibilities.

The fourth characteristic of journalistic truth is that journalists need to understand that they have the final say regarding the news. Just as the standards and rules created are meant to govern them, the public has set their own unwritten rules and standards that the journalists provide them with reliable information that they can use to make decisions. Journalists need to understand this unwritten rule and therefore provide quality information for the public.

The last characteristic is that journalists should make their role and standards clear… [END OF PREVIEW]

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