Does Journalism Still Value the Truth?


As a student at one of the world's most prestigious journalism schools, I barely go five minutes without getting into some kind of discussion on the state of modern journalism. Usually, these conversations focus on whether or not journalists still play an integral truth-telling watchdog role in society.

In addition to the classes, I have to take that focus on ideological debates of this type, real questions about sensationalism and presentation have come up in the course of my work as a journalist for various publications. Plus, my friends and family know that I'm a journalism student, and take that as a cue to voice any questions or opinions on the subject.

My short answer to the question, in case you too are asking, is yes, journalists still value the truth, and most of them do their absolute damndest to make sure you know that truth. Sure, there are outlets like Fox News that clearly have certain ideological slants that cast doubt on their desire to tell people the truth, but for the most part, journalists write truthfully about things the public needs and wants to know about.

Take the Washington Post's Wonkblog, for example. This blog, run mostly by Ezra Klein, covers government policy, and makes difficult topics like the fiscal cliff understandable through clear reporting and easy-to-use charts. Although Klein may seem like a liberal commentator at first glance, his pieces are good at representing both sides. His piece on Obamacare's potential fate, one of the best articles written about the election, discussed two alternatives based on whether or not Obama won reelection, but never explicitly voiced support for either one.

The Post isn’t alone here. The New York Times continues to find new ways to tell their readers the truth about interesting, relevant things (please check out their recent story of an avalanche in Tunnel Creek, WA if you somehow haven't yet). A few years ago in Texas, journalist Evan Smith founded the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news publication aimed at increasing public knowledge of (and participation in) government and policy.

Therefore, the question is not whether journalists value the truth. They clearly do. The real question of importance is whether or not the American public wants to hear the truth. In our multimedia blogosphere and 300-channel cable packages, where everyone with an opinion is able to blast it, it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish journalism from commentary, and find the truth hidden in the noise.

In New Yorker article from 2007, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the paradigm of puzzles, which can be solved with enough information, versus mysteries, where "the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much." People who complain about journalists not valuing the truth apparently see journalist truth-telling as a puzzle, where we don't know the truth about politics and government because journalists aren't giving it to us. But given the overflow of opinionated commentators, the situation is really more of a mystery. The truth is certainly out there if you look for it, but it won't always be handed to you on a silver platter. It's easy to get lulled into a false sense of truth by enclosing yourself in a media bubble where the only people you listen to are the ones with the same opinions as you, but if you want the real truth, you have to look for it. Just be ready, because sometimes the truth can be uncomfortable.