Is ‘journalistic truth’ different from objective reality?

Postmodernist epistemological concerns also arise with terms such as “objectivity”, “truth” and “truth-telling”. Rosenau (1992) posited that, “Theory implies truth, and truth, at least in the social sciences, is theoretical in character. Post modernists are suspicious regarding modern versions of both” (p. 77). While the post-modernist skeptical position is that truth does not exist at all, the postmodern affirmative argument is that truth exists not in objective reality but only in subjective apprehension.

Across various conceptions of journalism, one of the primary ethical responsibilities of the journalist is the obligation to tell truth. The journalist who, by ignorance, innuendo, insinuation, negligence or omission, produces misinformation or propaganda, automatically invites moral blame and possibly legal penalty. “The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of events of the time and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation” (Randall, p. 1).

Although “the conception of journalism emerged alongside the notion of objectivity” (Schudson, 1990), the postmodern affirmative perspective is that any truth—including the truth told in media reports—is one of several possible truths, each of which is by definition subjective, as its validity is founded on its ontological position within the lived experience of the subject or subjects involved.

As Figdor (2010) put it, “news is essentially a form of testimony in the epistemological sense: it is a means for acquiring belief about states of affairs not experienced or otherwise known firsthand” (p. 22).

Novak (1974) suggested that “the idea of truthfulness in journalism needs a new name, accurately reflecting journalism’s unique necessities (p. 7).” I do not affirm that merely switching terminology can deflect or eliminate underlying epistemological and ontological issues associated with the terms “objectivity” and “truth”. However, I would agree that a new name is useful in a discussion intended to produce a more clarified and disambiguated articulation of the meaning of “truth” in journalism. For this reason, I have consistently used the term “journalistic truth” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, pp. 42-3) to refer to the idea of truth or objectivity as it pertains to journalism, as this term more accurately conveys journalists’ faithful reporting of their perceptions of reality, rather than an authoritative positing of an absolute, objective reality.

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