The challenges facing media — notably fake news and growing pressure to limit free speech — will never be resolved by social media and publishing platforms applying highly subjective moderation and editing processes to speech and prose on their systems. The more they do so, the more they will drop their platform neutrality and become editorial publishers in their own right.
Thankfully, people are finally beginning to understand what has been self-evident to those of us who have studied media history for a long time. Nobody holds a monopoly over truth. Yes, facts exist. But facts in and of themselves are not enough to establish whether a sense-making narrative is truthful or representative of reality. Facts can and always will be spun if they can be spun. And news outfits will always editorialise, even when they say they try not to, based around their institutional biases. Other facts, even scientific ones, can evolve as more information comes to the forefront.
Sometimes it’s hard to spot the editorialisation in situ because of the Pavlovian associations with authority we have established in our brains when we hear or observe certain phrases or writing techniques.
The Charlie Brooker sketch below is a great example of how readers’ minds can be duped into thinking that a news story is authoritative and neutral, when in reality it is neither, just because of the authoritative formatting and language used by the journalist.
This phenomenon is not unique to broadcast.
Every day journalists draw on facts to forge narratives that make sense of events. What readers fail to appreciate is that such events are often plagued by ambiguity. In such circumstances, journalists — as subjective observers of events — have no choice but to take a subjective position on things to help stitch together the sense-making narrative.
The alternative to doing so would be writing that “things happened today, but we can’t be sure why they happened”. This would hardly go down well with readers. Humans, as a rule, prefer certainty over uncertainty. And since our minds crave narratives that simplify and make sense of the world, we seek out stories and interpretations that do so too, irrespective of whether they stick to the facts. The job of a journalist, in many respects, is to provide that sort of clarity – often by subtly (and unwittingly) injecting speculation or bias to better frame the story.
This famous 1986 Guardian advert did a great job of explaining how journalists can inadvertently inject bias into their storytelling:
Truly neutral stories are rarely provocative or clicky, hence the dryness of wire reporting. Those who can pull out furthest in their perspective (often foreign correspondents with no skin in the internal political game) tend to get the best picture of all. Though these days even wire reports are editorialising more than they used to.
This is why — whether they realise it or not — even those journalists who are proudly committed to neutrality or the search for definitive truth often end up drawing on their own “lived experience” and biases when ascertaining how to frame a story or which facts to cherry-pick, omit or prioritise within it. They can’t help it.
This is also how two different stories, which can both be considered factually accurate, can arrive at totally opposing conclusions or perspectives about the truth of a certain event.
Is Truth a Spectrum?
Naturally, no one will be shocked by the assertion that neutrality doesn’t equate to truth. This is largely obvious. What they might be shocked by, however, is my suggestion that socio-economic truth (as opposed to material or physical truth) is far from absolute when ambiguities and uncertainties prevail. It becomes as much a function of cultural perspectives, upbringing and values as anything else.
A group whose culture is closely connected to snowy conditions will have a very different view of climate change and the related risks, uncertainties and benefits of taking pre-emptive action than one that has been largely shielded from the elements. That both groups might interpret the same fact-based data differently, doesn’t necessarily mean one group’s interpretation is less truthful than the other’s. It just means different life experiences are influencing their interpretation.
Which is to say, once we get into the realms of social norm construction and fights over positive rather than negative liberty, truth inevitably finds itself on a spectrum. One man’s terrorist becomes another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s censor becomes another man’s protector. One man’s oppressor becomes another man’s liberator. None of which is necessarily a problem in and of itself as long as we understand it for what it is: a continuous social struggle to forge an equilibrium that benefits as many people as possible.
Those who believe “their truth” — i.e. consensus or majority truth — is synonymous with absolute truth are unlikely to be happy with the idea that the world is made up of many competing truths. While their perspective might have held water in a highly cohesive, homogenous and insulated society, that is not where we are today.
What prevails today is a battle over cultural norms and socio-political and economic arrangements between conservatives (mostly defending the classical idea of liberalism and laissez-faire) and progressives (mostly eschewing such ideas in favour of greater protectionism, absolutism, and control). It is the ultimate battle between negative and positive liberty.
Whenever there is a battle over cultural norms and socio-political and economic arrangements in diverse systems, truth inevitably ends up on a spectrum. Those the system is benefiting naturally tend to disagree on the fundamentals with those it is disadvantaging. The former understandably want to preserve the system while the latter wants to change it.
Governing Consensus Reality
None of the above is to suggest that I agree with the woke notion that everything is a social construct. Certainly, some things are. But usually, they’re the sort of things that are naturally beset by uncertainty anyway, from what happens after you die to what economic policy is most likely to generate prosperity and wealth. Yes, consensus reality really does influence cultural norms related to dress, sex and other complex ethical matters. But that doesn’t mean some norms are not more beneficial to society than others or certain truths more representative of reality than others (the world is round not flat, people can’t float through air etc).
In the end, such norms and practices either work well for society and deliver prosperity and happiness to all, or they do not. If they do not, they may be perceived as harmful, igniting schisms or revolutions. Either way, once the outcome is known, much of the ambiguity disappears. For example, when communism failed to deliver on its promises, the “truths” used to justify its implementation were demonstrably discredited.
When cultures or systems fail in such dramatic ways as communism did, they usually have an incentive to adapt quickly — either by adopting entirely new practices or by assimilating those of foreign systems. When the failure is more of a slow bleed, or evidence of failure is not so clear-cut, it can be harder to reject self-harming practices, especially if they have become closely connected with one’s sense of cultural identity or purpose.
This is when culture wars begin to represent a mission-oriented fight to convert those who think differently by persuading them they are wrong and in so doing challenging their sense of identity and culture, something nobody likes to be told. (Akin to trying to convince your parents-in-law to drop their Christmas practices in favour of your family’s because you are convinced theirs are rubbish while yours are great.)
Logic would dictate that those who can prove their system can deliver maximum happiness for the maximum amount of people without any negative externalities should win the culture wars. But without a clear vision and consensus about what sort of future we should all be fighting for, even this might not be the case. The Amish, for example, might argue that their way of life, even if gruelling, is superior to the modern appliance-filled one because what it lacks in convenience it more than makes up for with stability, community and purpose. Some self-harming sacrifices, they might even argue, are worth making. Why replace manual labour with what eventually becomes a need to go to the gym?
Journalists Without Borders Need Value Systems
All these thorny issues are why values, ethics and standards must be transparently displayed by those operating in the truth-telling business. The problem at the end of the day isn’t the news that can be demonstrably proven to be fake on a fact, it’s the sort that fails to register that there is a conflict of “liberal” visions at the heart of the modern culture wars. It’s also the sort that pretends to be something it is not. Notably, an arbiter of absolute or objective truth when such truth cannot be readily established with the facts at hand.
A good example of this phenomenon is the vogue for calling everything that doesn’t suit one’s sensibilities “baseless”. Obviously, just because something is currently baseless doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility that it might become “based” in the future as new facts come to the fore as a result of investigation, inquiry or the passage of time. Calling something “baseless” is therefore mostly a verbal trick to shut down further inquiry by stigmatising the inquiry itself. This is especially the case when the slur is applied to novel phenomena, accusations or things we haven’t yet had the chance to investigate. This can apply to everything from a rape victim’s or whistleblower’s claims to allegations that Covid leaked from a lab.
In such cases, what media practitioners are de facto asking you to believe is that the pathway to truth lies in the suppression of inquiry because consensus opinion is never wrong and should not be questioned.
And yet, in the age of bots and Chat GPT that can skew our perception of consensus or the majority view, there is no reason why a majority should have a better handle on the truth of ambiguous circumstances than a minority. On the contrary, the majority view — being the target of all sorts of influence operations — might be more polluted with mistruth than the minority view. It might therefore not be getting the full picture by design.
This is why free speech matters. Without it there is no self-correction for a large majority being led astray by erroneous groupthink, purposeful misdirection or fraud.
But this is also why if you’re going to operate in the truth business, you have to make your values, principles and agenda explicitly clear in a way that can be regulated and accounted for. You can’t legitimately challenge other people’s truths unless people know where you yourself are coming from.
This is the point of Innscribers. It’s a system that aims to organise independent journalists who operate in a borderless information world according to defined values, that can then transparently compete with each other.
Interesting idea. I suspect that different countries/different subcultures will have different priorities.
(My point of view is US Citizen, US Resident, Formal Training in Technology (Semiconductor Physics, Computer Science), Elite University graduate (Yale), never been part of the Mainstream Media.)
Major disclosures of bias would include:
-Do you work for the New York Times, CNN, or other parts of the mainstream media?
-Did you graduate from Stanford, UC, Oxbridge, or one of the Ivy League schools?
-Have you ever received money from the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?
-Have you ever worked at a “Think Tank”? If so, which ones?
-Have you ever worked for the US Federal Government? If so, which part?
I hope this helps.
By the way, I admire your writing.
It does help. Thanks very much for contributing. It is appreciated.
I’m glad you like it.
I was hoping to read your DRAFT ethics statement for journalists. Where is it? Put it out there in DRAFT form, so we can comment. 🙂
I would love it if people helped me draft it so best to join me in the Innscribers discord where I’m seeking feedback. I could put up a draft based on my subjective perspective but it would be great to have collective input.