It's to find the truth and report it, right? Journalists are employed to serve their readers and viewers by cutting through hype, digging out red herrings, challenging misleading statements and exposing what's really going on. You would think so, wouldn't you?
But it turns out it's a little more complicated than that. So complicated in fact that one of the world's most respected and established media outlets - The New York Times no less - has seen fit to ask its readers whether its journalists should be "truth vigilantes".
Arthur Brisbane, who's employed as the NYT's 'public editor' (a role created to represent the readers in the news gathering process), provoked a controversy when he wondered out loud whether journalists should call politicians out on outright falsehoods.
Brisbane used as an example recent statements by Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney that President Obama had made speeches "apologizing for America" when the record showed he had done no such thing. The NYT public editor wondered whether the paper should, in addition to its separate fact-checking, challenge Romney's claim within the copy.
The reaction to Brisbane's blog post boiled down to 'why the hell is the New York Times asking its readers whether they want the truth? Isn't that what you guys are there for?' Media guru Jay Rosen seized on the column as further proof of his hypothesis that the mainstream media is failing its readers by forsaking the pursuit of truth and employing fake objectivity and a kind of "view from nowhere".
This blog has been saying something similar now for some time. But unlike Rosen - who gets a little carried away blowing his own trumpet - I don't blame the journalists. There seems little doubt, that with honourable exceptions, most working journalists these days spend the vast majority of their time on the hamster wheel, and that reflects the lousy economics of the trade now - fewer people being asked to do more and more by an industry in terminal decline. Skills and institutional knowledge are being lost to journalism as people quit the craft, disillusioned with low pay, poor conditions, a lack of a career path and a realisation that the people who employ them don't care much about the truth anyway.
Newsrooms are now populated by desk journalists, cutting and pasting from press releases to meet constant deadlines and online obligations. Their harried news editors and sub-editors - like Sisyphus - are given the immensely thrilling job of rolling the boulder up the hill everyday, only to see it roll back down again and crush them. (Do I sound bitter? Sorry. Shell shock. Haven't taken my pills today.)
So, what we were talking about? The Truth? Yeah right. Young journalists on $60K a year and working 60-hour weeks are being asked to pump out 3-4 stories each day to fill the Great White Spaces between the ads, while providing updates for the web and occasionally a multi-media piece. For these kids, there is barely enough time to run the spell check, never mind challenging, say, Joe Hockey's lie that government debt is "exploding" and "putting upward pressure on interest rates". And unlike US newsrooms, there has never been any culture of fact-checking in Australian journalism. Subs are now consigned to cutting the story to fit and are actively discouraged from checking the copy beyond the most cursory grammatical/spell check.
So my take on the Truth deficit thing in media is to avoid blaming everyday working journalists (By the way, I'm not talking about highly paid columnists here, who are hired as professional trolls). The vanilla reporters are stuck in the Dark Satanic news mills, working in bad light under strict instructions and pumping out thinner and thinner yarn. If you want a culprit, you need to look past those drones to the media owners, who under intense economic pressure have decided that what they are selling is not so much the Truth, but a view of the world that confirms the received prejudices of their own readership/viewership (prejudices, BTW, that are formed by reading the tosh served up as news).
As to this notion of Truth, it's worth asking "whose truth?" In an academic paper released in 2008 (Gentzkow and Shapiro, 'Competition and Truth in the Market for News'), two researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business put forward the proposition that consumers will tend to favour those news outlets whose in-built bias best reflects their own. Yes, there is a disincentive for media organisations to peddle outright falsehoods. But between the two extremes of damned lies and the virginal truth, there is an awfully great expanse of grey territory.
"Suppose that consumers consciously trade off accuracy of a news source against a preference for information that is likely to confirm their beliefs," Gentzkow and Shapiro write. "They want to learn the truth, but will choose a less accurate source or one that avoids reporting certain kinds of facts in order to avoid having their personal beliefs challenged. Adding competitors in this kind of world can sometimes exacerbate bias because it allows consumers to self-segregate more effectively and to avoid hearing information that might contradict their priors."This the unspoken secret in journalism - the realisation that the public is not really that interested in the unvarnished truth. Commercial media owners have twigged to this and now are in the business of spinning "facts" (rather factoids) that use "the news" as a platform for presenting a world view in keeping with the one they have educated their readers to believe in. Hence The Daily Telegraph's continued commercial success in printing outright falsehoods (remember Wayne Swan's "congestion tax"?).
Traditional journalists (ones who saw their readers as their first responsibility and not their employer's bottom line) might have been expected to have challenged this practice. Alas, an entire generation of journos has now been schooled that their job is to serve up the view of the world that their readership wants and which suits the commercial imperatives of the organisations that employ them. And if they allow an outright lie from a public figure to be reported unchallenged, their defence can be "well, HE said it!"
You see it's no longer about Getting to The Truth. Like advertising, journalism now is mostly about constructing a version of the truth that suits a chosen market. It's about making an impact and attracting eyeballs and building a brand. And the greatest shame of it all is that a gullible public buys it. They can't handle the truth.