Saturday, April 7, 2007

Truth in Journalism

By Ruth Douillette, an IWW adminstrator

What is Truth?

Okay, we won't go there again. Can we even agree that there is an absolute truth? There must be, but I'm not sure.

Is truth in the eye of the beholder? Do you see a different truth than others? Or is that just believing your opinion is true?

Truth is sometimes embellished, and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d. Once stretched it has left an impression of "truth" that never snaps back to absolute--if there even is such a thing. Sometimes truth rearranged, or expressed out of order, alters its absolute truthfulness. Truths omitted among truths stated also reframe absolute truth.

I had none of these questions when I plunged blindly into the world of journalism. Maybe I should make that "small town" of journalism, to be more truthful.

The point is, when I became a stringer for a local newspaper, I was armed only with the ability to tie words together, an aptness for weeding through details to cull the essence of a long meeting, and a desire to "do no harm" to my town by remaining unbiased--writing the truth, in other words.

A local issue involved an alleged verbal threat accompanied by nasty language made by a town official (John*) to a 70-year-old woman (Mary) who is known to be quite snappish herself. Mary took John to court, and after ten months the case was "continued without a finding." Just as the dust was settling, another town official (Brumhilda), prone to shaking her broom, stirred up a cloud again when she accused the official of lying.

John was guilty, she said.

I am not, he said.

John is on probation, she said

I am not, he said.

Find out the truth, my editor said.

Can't we just let this settle down again, I asked?

No, we couldn't. A newspaper has an obligation to present the truth, he said.

I went to a reliable source, the chief probation officer of the court. In a phone conversation I asked the meaning of the legalese, rephrased questions and asked again, clarified, wrote her answers and read them back to her. Then I wrote my story.

With the headline "Court Explains John's Probationary Status," and a bold sideline quote from the Chief Probation Officer saying, "Neither John or Mary is wrong in what they say, but neither is 100 percent right," I thought the entire article was walking the middle of the road.

Then Brumhilda shook her broom and the dust hit the fan. She called the paper and tried to get me fired for not telling the truth.

Doing no harm apparently is not possible, however good the intentions. I stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest, albeit a tiny one that stopped buzzing very quickly, to be truthful again. But it startled me. And got me asking questions greater minds than mine have pondered for centuries. What is truth, anyway? Or put another way, whose truth is the right truth?

*Names have been changed to hide the truth.


For a more comprehensive discussion on truth in journalism, see Glenn Greenwald's story "National journalists believe you should trust them" in the April 5th Salon.


Ruth Douillette, co-administrator of IWW Practice, is a middle-school teacher.  She writes
profiles, features, and news for her town paper, and appears as a regular guest on "Around
the Table," a local cable talk show. For the truth about Ruth visit her blog.


Bob Sanchez said...

Aside from truth, there is also a concept called "truthiness," coined by Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report on Comedy Central. This covers anything you know in your gut is true, regardless of evidence. The two combatants you wrote about doubtless both had truthiness on their side.

shaye said...

Ruth --

If one is like me, and has spent any time at your blog, or is lucky enough to have conversed with you about pretty much anything, can only admire your honest and natural style of observing and writing!

I'd be curious to know how you feel about writing a biography/memoir that included one's family. There is advice out there but the pieces that I've read seem to almost sashay around some issues. Like, whether or not it's appropriate to document facts when a whole clan denies that something occured, and when police/court records tell another story. (As do victims!) And understand, this is not to indite any individual but to preserve the integrity of the writing or story. How far can or should we go to untangle a hundred years of lies when there is little or no ambiguity about "the facts?" Or are facts and truth irreconcilably different? There are so many considerations that, in the end, I'm overwhelmed and back away!

No, you don't have to answer. :-) This post just happened to touch on questions and boggles I've been wrestling with on and off for a few years...


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