Telling stories

Sometimes The Truth Can Be Hard To Find

Posted by southwrite on June 15, 2014

Press Pass


“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

– Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride

As writers we use words to describe events, convey ideas and – we hope – provide a glimpse of the truth. Words are our stock in trade and the tools that allow us to provide readers with glimpses of other realities.

But how effective are we in describing what we believe to be “reality?” And, what is our responsibility to ensure that we’re really telling the truth in our work? Most of us may not spend a lot of time musing about “truth” because we believe we’re usually doing a good job of being accurate and getting the facts straight. Yet, if we’re doing any kind of journalistic writing (whether for newspapers, magazines or trade journals) we need to be aware that our readers approach our work with more than a little skepticism.

A Gallup Poll finds that just 23 percent of the public trusts newspapers. Of course they’re ahead of Big Business, Labor, HMOs and of course Congress (just 10 percent have confidence in our legislators and you have to wonder if those who did actually understood the question.) Another poll revealed only 29 percent of Americans believe the media generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are “often inaccurate.”

That dismal showing should concern all of us – not just full time newspaper editors and reporters. The loss of faith obviously has many reasons ranging from partisan perceptions of bias to well published scandals.

As a writer and former newspaper reporter, I’m all too aware of how hard it is to capture an idea or even an event in words. Words become only an approximation of reality, but never reality itself. Writers of all kinds are limited by their own knowledge and access to sources of information. Even when they witness the event itself, they may only see part of what is actually happening.

The part that makes its way into the story may not be the part that critical – and highly biased – readers want to see. Both the political left and right believe the media isn’t telling the truth and is – fairly or unfairly – biased in favor of the “other side.” This partisan vise demonstrates that the middle of the road is sometimes the most dangerous place to be.

In recent times there has arisen a class of political bloggers concerned primarily with advancing their side’s cause. Truth or accuracy is not a big concern. The facts such as they are will work themselves out in the end. Bias is something to be celebrated, not pushed below the surface as mainstream news reporters try to do.

So what should journalists and all writers do? It seems obviously but we should do what we do best – report the facts the best that we possibly can. The partisan will always believe that journalists are lying if they don’t endorse their side’s claims. There’s just not much you can do about it.

What we can do is our job. What could be more important than that?

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