Whether the truth will always come out

In the middle of a packed programme of chewy ethical dilemmas – from the use of dubious sources to the turbulent saga of WikiLeaks – readers’ editors from all around the world gathering in Montreal last week were asked to consider a fundamental question at the heart of all journalism: what is truth?

The call was made by Senator Hugh Segal, a Conservative member of the Canadian parliament, who came to the conference of the Organization of News Ombudsmen concerned at the way in which the media will allow a story line they have helped develop actually get in the way of reporting facts as they actually are. “I subscribe to the view that everyone, including a working journalist, has the right to their own opinion but no one has the right to their own facts,” he said.

This phenomenon has been referred to before by Andie Tucher, a former associate editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, as the “congenial truth” and expanded upon by veteran Canadian journalist Bill Fox, who applied it to a range of serious issues where the “spin” of the congenial truth was allowed to overtake the facts and even obscure them from any open and frank analysis. Fox focused on the way in which congenial truths shape how events are covered and what facts are deemed to be relevant by those doing the covering.

Senator Segal saw congenial truth as an unspoken understanding between reporter and the public about where preference places the facts and shapes the reported reality.

As an example, he asked if the WikiLeaks website had altered or rearranged the chronology of the 250,000 documents it released last year. “Has anyone asked seriously if the general anti-establishment bias of the WikiLeaks founders influenced which documents have been released?” he asked. “When ambassadors’ reports are leaked in order to underline a WikiLeaks bias about this government, that leader or that policy, does the bias of WikiLeaks matter? Is there tough questioning of why WikiLeaks may not have chosen to release documents that reflect constructively on a government leader or ambassador?

“In other words, does the congenial truth that all government is bad and secretive and not ever to be trusted actually affect the way facts about WikiLeaks are themselves probed and covered?”

I would venture that the WikiLeaks saga was an alliance of modern technology and good, old-fashioned journalism: of those 250,000 documents, fewer than 2,000 have been published in an meticulous editing process across five newspapers that sought out the best stories from a mountain of 300 million words: constructive documents praising governments or officials are unlikely to feature in such a process, however many were leaked in the first place. Good news doesn’t make a story.

Perhaps more controversially, Senator Segal asked if the surprise about the so-called Arab Spring was the result of solid news reporting and clear understanding of facts or the congenial truths circulated about those nations.

He asked: “Is there a reasonably objective database that suggests that Arab men and women of all ages have less interest in freedom and democracy than do people in Scandinavia or Canada? Or was there a congenial truth advanced by many with the goal of diminishing Arab countries as places or partners of progress and opportunity, despite what Arab economists argued and portrayed in their Arab Human Development Reports for some years?”

That’s a difficult question to answer when you consider that most Arab regimes would never allow research to see if their people support the idea of freedom and democracy, but perhaps I am falling prey to a congenial truth.

However much I might disagree with Senator Segal on that point, his remarks did make me pause to consider just how many of the complaints that cross my desk every day are caused by this type of “go with the flow” journalism that, as he put it, embraces the congenial truth over what is substantiated and perhaps unpleasant and not congenial at all.

This column was originally published in The Observer on May 22, 2011.

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