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Journalism

For a Journalist, Finding Truth isn’t Always Simple

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I have seen a quote a few times lately shared on social media about how a journalist should be focusing their efforts on finding truth.

The quote offers a simple suggestion about journalists who have to deal with conflicting statements. Journalists often face such situations. But this advice on an easy way for finding truth misses the mark. 

I’ll clean up the quote a bit; I don’t know who first said it and I’ve seen it attributed to more than one person. But it goes something like this: 

If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not the journalist’s job to quote them both. Their job is to look out the window and find out which is true.

Oh, would that things could be so easy. 

Yes, I realize that this is a simple example of a bigger point. That point is that a journalist shouldn’t rely solely on quotes in telling a story.

At the same time, people who’ve never worked in journalism share the quote without the understanding of a bigger point:

Finding truth isn’t always so simple

I’m sure that at some point, certainly more than once, as you were driving somewhere, it started raining. Or, maybe as you were driving somewhere during a rain storm, the rain stopped. 

Sometimes, it can feel like there’s a specific line at which rain either happens or doesn’t. Well, there is. Where there’s a storm, there’s usually rain. Where there are no storm clouds, rain probably won’t fall. 

Storm clouds don’t care about city limits, road lengths or zip codes. Rain falls where it falls and doesn’t where it doesn’t. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone about a big rain that did happen where you were but did not happen where they were, you have an example of the problem.

Let’s say there’s a storm cloud over a city. Rain begins to fall. But the storm cloud doesn’t cover the entire city. There’s a drought going on, so every drop of rain is important. One person tells the journalist they’re already tired of the rain. But another, on the other side of town, says they hope to see rain for their garden.

So one person says it’s raining and the other one says it’s dry. Sure, the journalist can look out the window and see which is true. But the journalist is seeing which is true respective to where the journalist actually is.

Taking the quote to its logical conclusion, if the journalist is on the side of town where the rain is, he’ll discount the claim from the person who says it’s dry. If the journalist is in the part of town that hasn’t seen a drop, he’ll discount the claim from the person who says they’re ready for the rain to stop.

Either way, one person may come off as a crackpot when, in fact, both are correct.

Simply “looking out the window to see which is correct” doesn’t give you the whole story any more than running two opposing quotations does.

A very simplistic example, yes

I’m not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill with the quote. Really. I understand the bigger point is that a journalist needs to fact-check on his or her own rather than simply relying on quotes and soundbites.

But think about it this way: this example relies on a question as simple as this: Did it rain where you were?

If you can’t even guarantee one simple “yes” or “no” that fully presents a true and accurate picture for a question as elementary as that, how can you rely on that philosophy for fact-checking bigger topics?

There’s not always one right answer for the simple stuff. Imagine how hard it is to look for a simple answer on issues like healthcare, education, poverty, crime, homelessness, gun rights, the environment, inflation — the list goes on and on.

There’s rarely, if ever, only one answer that answers every question.

Take the economy, for example. One person may claim finding the right job that pays a livable wage was simple. Another may have applied at two dozen businesses without a nibble. Who’s right? Who’s being truthful? It’s entirely possible that both might be speaking truth. But no two situations are exactly the same. One’s experience may be very different from another’s.

That doesn’t make either one wrong.

Politicians don’t want you to think that way, though

Our political leaders, our would-be leaders who are campaigning for office, and those who wrap themselves up a little too tightly in political debate don’t want you to see the other side. They want you to believe fervently that only one side is ever correct. They want you to believe, of course, that their side is the one that always spouts the truth.

Life doesn’t work that way. Both sides have their own perspective. Both sides have a vested interest in getting more people to think their way. And both sides have their moments of hoping people won’t spend much effort on finding truth. They’d much prefer that everyone just take their perspective and run with it.

Unfortunately, politics have become more and more bitter over the years. Politicians believe that they benefit from dividing the public. Maybe they do to an extent. But the public, to a large extent, has fallen for the division politicians love to sow.

That translates to a greater-than-ever level of distrust of not only the media but anyone who doesn’t agree with a person to the letter.

I’ve had moments of being accused of being a conservative and a liberal over my career. On one hand, I suppose that’s the best thing anyone who spends any time in the journalism industry could have. But I don’t want to be accused — or mistaken — for being either one.

To adapt the weather example to the world of politics, a reporter who only quotes one side after “looking out the window and reporting what he sees,” the other side automatically claims bias. Even when there is none, that side will assume there is and scream to the heavens about it.

Quoting two sides of an issue — and let’s be honest, there are often more than just two — isn’t necessarily enough. That much I agree with. But not mentioning an opposing point of view just because the reporter doesn’t witness it himself isn’t really journalism, either. And it’s certainly not part of an effort at finding truth.

Journalists need to report that there is more than one perspective. Otherwise, they’re not reporting on an issue. They’re just reporting one person’s opinion.

That’s certainly not a journalist’s job.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.