In the classic movie about journalistic malfeasance, “Absence of Malice,” a reporter must face the consequences of getting her facts and the truth wrong. In one of the final scenes, she must deal with another reporter, who, like her, doesn’t understand the difference between accuracy and truth. Here is the dialog:
- Reporter I: I need to know how to describe your relationship with Gallagher. Mac said to quote you directly. You can say whatever you want.
- Reporter II: Just… say we were involved.
- Reporter I: That’s true, isn’t it?
- Reporter II No. But it’s accurate.
That conversation occurred to me as I was listening to a journalism educator’s failure to understand the difference between accuracy, facts and truth.
During a presentation about the media’s role in shaming people, I asked him to look at Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri. The first anniversary of Brown’s death occurred over the weekend, and a CNN reporter described Brown as “an unarmed teenager.”
I posited that the description was accurate, but far from truthful. He argued that the description was factual; therefore, it was truthful.
Journalists can arrange facts in a variety of ways to make a report untrue.
That’s where logic helps to discern the truth. I learned that from the Jesuits many years ago.
After the journalism educator had realized his error, he compounded it by sending me his own quote:
“The only place you will find truth is in your religion or other systems that eschew empirical verification. Journalism isn’t about truth, it’s about the search for the best evidence of the truths, and the best we can hope for is accuracy.”
I won’t even try to parse that statement, but I can understand why he has trouble with finding truth with the number of assumptions he has made in that statement.
Nevertheless, I do remember one fact that became truth in Ferguson. Brown did not have his hands up as he said to police officer Darren Wilson, “Don’t shoot!”
You wouldn’t know that from the “factual” reports from the media.
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