Figure 3: A hierarchical representation of journalistic truth
In Figure 3, I attempt to present a componential conceptualisation of some of the main ideas associated with journalistic truth. In this hierarchical schema, the three main components of journalistic truth are factuality, fairness and relevance. Factuality involves the ideas of accuracy, completeness, honesty and transparency. Fairness involves transparency and impartiality, while relevance involves the idea of newsworthiness.
The ethical principle of accuracy, which is the essential foundation of journalistic truth, involves getting the facts straight. This implies that diligent reporting involves a strong emphasis on sound techniques of newsgathering and fact checking. The principle of completeness involves diligently seeking out subjects to give them the opportunity to respond to stories, giving voice to the voiceless by citing unofficial sources of information, supporting the open exchange of views (including personally inimical viewpoints), and reporting in a way that attempts to capture the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.
The principle of honesty or good faith, like accuracy, speaks to the duty to exercise due care to avoid error in reporting. However, unlike accuracy, honesty does not dictate the absence of human error, only the absence of intentional misinformation. By this principle, error is not necessarily unethical but distortion or deliberate misrepresentation are unethical, and journalists are expected to be responsive to allegations of error or unfairness in reporting, usually by publishing written corrections, accompanied by written apologies where necessary. For Boudana (2010), “[p]romoting honesty can in fact lead to the exoneration of many consequential faults…Honesty opposes responsibility in the sense that it fails to respond to those who provide criticism” (p. 303).
Fairness involves transparency and impartiality. According to Boudana, “Transparency means providing and making explicit the process by which information is provided” (p. 302). The principle of transparency dictates that a news journalist should take all reasonable steps to identify all sources of stories, and to corroborate any version of events that is likely to be disputed, if he/she has not witnessed those events, and indicate, in what is published, any such dispute. The ethical principle of justifiability comes into play in determining whether the public interest merits the airing of uncorroborated facts. In cases where uncorroborated facts are disseminated, the lack of corroboration must be made explicit.
Impartiality, another term sometimes used interchangeably with “objectivity”, has been either “disregarded as an impossible standard” or “denounced as an undesirable norm” (Boudana, p. 297) from the postmodernist standpoint. Impartiality is also closely associated with the term “neutrality”. In a qualitative study of thirteen French war correspondents, Boudana found that “several interviewees rejected objectivity because of the inevitability of the journalist’s subjectivity as a subject” (p. 298). Boudana highlights three dimensions of neutrality, all of which were rejected by informants: balance, the separation of fact from commentary (p. 299), and the absence of value-laden or authorial intrusions (p. 297).
Balance refers to the responsibility to give equal emphasis to varying sides of a story or issue. For example, in a dispute, all sides should be given the chance to comment. For Wilson (1996), balance means “exploring issues in an uncommitted way so that viewers, listeners and readers appreciate all the important arguments, including the weight of support they enjoy” (p. 45).
Issues related to news selection are usually associated with the criterion of relevance, which is closely associated with the concept of newsworthiness. Newsworthiness is thought to be determined by standardized news values, which serve as the criteria that guide reporters’ choice and construction of newsworthy stories. An early study (Stempel, 1962) distinguished six factors of newsworthiness: suspense-conflict, public affairs, human interest, timeliness, positive events and controversy about politics and governments. Buckalew (1969) found five dimensions of newsworthiness: normality, significance, proximity, timeliness and visual availability. Badii and Ward (1980) found four dimensions: significance, prominence, normality and reward. However, newsworthiness “is a cognitive construct that only partially predicts which events make it into the news media and how those events are covered” (Shoemaker & Vos, 2010).