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The return of truth in journalism: An integrative perspective

ZHAO XINNING | 2018-07-05
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


 

There is little doubt that we are entering a new era in crisis communications. The proliferation of algorithmically-driven social media platforms allows erroneous claims and “fake news” to propagate with unprecedented speed. However, there are some ways to weaken them.(669PIC)


 

In the “post-truth” context, facts seem to have become irrelevant. It’s becoming the case where audiences care more about what sounds true rather than what actually is. Reality takes a backseat to emotion.


As the boundaries between truth and falsehood blur, academics and members of the media have begun debating the meaning, standards and value of the truth.


People’s understanding of reality has undergone several centuries of development. The meaning of facts in a news context has been examined from different perspectives in a variety of historical conditions and media environments. To be specific, it went through three stages: classical, data and intelligent media. The latter stage is characterized by a verified, data-driven approach as well as algorithm-dominated news production.


Today, the news business has a higher degree of integration involving an array of platforms for circulation and communication. However, the application of multiple advanced technologies has complicated the process of distinguishing news facts. It is urgent for mainstream and social media to standardize the process of fact selection and truth clarification.

 

Classical truth
The first attribute of news fact is its truthful nature. In other words, reportage is meant to be an objective reflection of truth. In the classical facts stage, the standards for news facts are usually consistent and undifferentiated. In the process of newswriting and reporting, the most commonly used measurement criteria are verification and authoritative sources.


It begins with the reporter arriving at the news site and evaluating the value of the news. The key part of this stage is “verification,” and the job of journalists has sometimes been summarized as “verification, verification and re-verification.” Reporters must make the pledge that they saw it, they heard it and had firsthand information on it. Then if the incident qualifies as news, reporters move to interview persons of interest and write about it. The reporter’s job is to have a fair and objective professional view of the scene, and through multiple sources of verification, to ensure that the news is what it is.


To obtain authoritativeness, reporters need to include confirmed facts from authoritative agencies and experts, which usually happen when major emergencies occur or the piece contains professional background information. Journalists have limited ability to understand their subjects because they may lack comprehensive knowledge, so they need to consult authoritative organizations or persons.


At the same time, when a news event touches the interests of various parties, the authoritative body could also act as an intermediary to prevent the stakeholders involved in the event from distorting the facts. It is notable that even with authoritative confirmation, the news article needs the participation of multiple parties to ensure the accuracy of factual presentation.

 

Data-driven truth
At the moment, all industries are undergoing digitization, and the news industry is no exception. Big data is involved in the whole production process of news. Data-driven journalism can take the form of mining historical records or it can be applied to current news in the form of databases and dynamic graphics. It can even be the basis of predictive pieces that use data modeling to track trends. Indeed, facts discovered in big data offer a fresh approach to news production.


It’s important to note that data does not just mean numbers, because simple data cannot constitute news facts. Only when data becomes part of the description, analysis or explanation of news events, can it be considered a component of news facts.


Chen Changfeng, a Chinese professor of communication studies, pointed out that data itself does not have much news value because it is often imperfect and deceptive. Thus, reporters are called upon to make sense of complicated data to uncover the deeper meaning and fresh angles of news incidents. Data news or digitized news, in the process of factual judgment, not only enriches the expression of facts but also creates clarity from complexity.


Next, an analysis of data news could mean that its production process already includes selecting data samples, analyzing relevant relations, generating models or diagrams. In contrast, traditional news production focuses more on the value of news. Once an incident is determined as worth reporting, reporters will enhance its readability and attractiveness by adding details and rich storylines. In contrast, before the release of data news, the selection process of samples has included the filtering of facts and the investigation of user experience. The comparison between the two shows that data news somewhat loses the sensitivity of news and takes more account of users’ interests and needs.

 

Algorithm-centered approach 
The mobile internet has promoted the ecological reconstruction and transformation of the media industry. New technologies today bring intelligent innovation to the media information dissemination channels, giving rise to social and algorithm distribution and also making the judgment of news facts differentiated. News distribution based on the algorithm does save a lot of trouble in information distribution and provides users with personalized information, but it has shortcomings, namely, a single algorithm distribution cannot meet the multi-level needs of users.


The algorithm-centered approach in fact relies too much on users’ pursuit of convenience and regards clues on social media as one of the sources of news production, which blurs the boundary of transmitters and recipients and increases randomness in the dissemination of the facts. Thanks to decentralized and open interaction facilitated by the internet and the sharing features of new media, news outlets and individuals are granted larger space of creation, but at the same time, excessive consumption of information inevitably takes a toll on the value of the news facts.


The algorithms also pose potential ethical issues, because the values that are embedded in algorithms can contain hidden biases and even mislead the public. The reason is that the reporter or editor responsible for news fact screening is not necessarily on the same page with algorithm engineers and programmers, creating the possibility of the algorithm-generated rigid, one-sided content that lacks a human touch or conscientious value judgments.


When journalism relies too much on algorithm to cater to the public and information push focuses extensively on emotional appeal, it could reduce the accuracy of information, cloud the news facts, and even distort the news truth with evidence subjected to established conclusions.

 

Integrative perspective
In the age of smart media, facts and truth are associated with statistical tools, preemptive judgment and software system applied in data analysis. The huge amounts of data available makes algorithm vulnerable to mistakes in the operation, which in turn means conclusions are harder to reach. Using empirical method in sociology to acquire and process news risks obtaining micro truth at the expense of overlooking macro truth. The fancier form it takes, the more likely the accuracy of facts is sacrificed, alienating the real-sense truth. In a way, new technologies have not only changed the expression of facts, but pose a threat to the basic “truth” of news.


Fundamentally, the fact is closely related to people’s perception, and it needs a certain carrier to let more people know. Whether from the overall level, individual level, a single angle, or a multi-dimensional perspective, objective reality and subjective belief always interact with each other.


Nevertheless, news facts stress objectively reflecting the fact. From the starting point of finding the news value and truth, sensitiveness and professionalism of reporters and editors are key in the process of getting hold on facts.


On the one hand, we need to accurately grasp the inherent law of news practice. Journalism practice and theory are full of interactions between humanistic spirit and scientific spirit. While the former confirms people’s enthusiasm, initiative and creativity, the latter advocates the exploration of truth and encourages a critical perspective. All are combined to ensure the authenticity of the facts.


On the other hand, we need to abide by the external regulations of news activities. People’s pursuit of justice and fairness is the driving force for the sustainable development of the society. The orderly development of news practice requires the supervision of external forces and regulations. In addition, new media technologies, as an auxiliary means of factual transmission, need to be made full use of to get the information across.


As some scholars have pointed out, in the “post-truth” era, truth still matters, but the way to get close to truth has some loopholes. To this end, it is essential to rebuild an objective framework and not to let subjectivity fill the void where the truth is temporarily absent. In the long run, in order to solve the problem of obtaining facts and truth, we must respect the law of the development of news practice, and integrate science and humanity. In time, the state of chaos and disorder will gradually withdraw from the stage, and the truth will eventually return.

 

Zhao Xinning is from the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China.

(edited by YANG XUE)