It’s all fake news.
Do you think about where your journalism comes from? When you read a story, do you trust it?
There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” lately. The acerbic term for the fourth estate coined by the 45th president seems to have captured the hearts of many Americans, people who’ve grown tired of reading stories so disconnected from their lives they seem conjured, concocted, made up.
Having worked in media and as a reporter, I get it. There is a gaping hole in journalism, in the retelling of the everyday. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the news is “fake,” but I couldn’t claim it as “real” either. News is somewhere in between, something gray and messy and incomplete. As journalists and as citizen readers we would do well to remember that.
Pick up a newspaper (chances are you’re holding one now). Where do you go for “the truth”? The cover story? An inside piece? The sports pages? Classifieds? Every section is told through a lens, and that is a complicating thing. Take the cover story, the most important news of the day. It is likely about a serious issue, something where reasonable people stand on differing sides. It is an issue with nuance and complexity, and there on the front page it is told in 1,200 words.
Just 1,200 words. What complicated truth can be told in that? How do you sum up the issues that dominate our political lives today in a dozen paragraphs?
Write 600 words on race in America. Tell the whole story. Make it complete.
Write 1,000 words on abortion. Don’t leave anything out.
Write 5,000 words on poverty. Make it a definitive work.
The truth? You don’t. You can’t. You edit. You cut. You leave out. You offer what you can in the space provided, trusting that good readers will forgive your omissions and chalk them up to brevity rather than bias. Every story, every article and every column does this. Not one can carry a full accounting of the truth. No newspaper gets it all. This isn’t a Sun problem, this is a journalism problem. It is a life problem.
Television, too: 24-hour news, but still we can’t get close to a full relating of the American experience.
And the internet: Infinite space, and yet there is more confusion than clarity.
Whether we’re talking documentaries or books, their hours of words and storytelling are yet incomplete. They only offer a partial telling. There is no truth, no single source explanation of the world and of what happens around us. Every retelling, every explanation, is woefully inadequate.
That is the heart of journalism, the truth of reporting. Every reporter wades out into a world of gray and comes back to lay down a story in black and white. That simplified version then goes out to thousands of people, each of whom looks at it slightly askew.
Is it “true”? No, but it contains truth in it. It may be built of slivers and pieces, but they have been cut and edited, inevitably leaving out as much truth as it carries.
This is not a new phenomenon. This is our ancient heart. This is the fourth estate, a foundational part of democracy. It is the citizen’s ticket into the political area, the piece that keeps them informed to vote and decide. It allows us to be more than puppets to presidents and senators. It is an imperfect system, just like every branch of government. The newsroom feedback loop is no more corrupt than the houses of power — it carries good in it, and at least as much messiness as good.
But if we remember journalism is an incomplete story, if we remember there is no “truth” in the news, that every retelling is incomplete, then we stop seeing it as “fake.” Like all things in American democracy, journalism is not clear cut. It is a quick, messy telling of life, too short and too simple, a first draft of history, homework passed in on deadline. It has its purpose, and when combined with our own experience, it has value.
A newspaper’s truth, after all, is not in stories alone. To get a full view you need to read every part: the classifieds and the crosswords, the columns and the comics. Read the ads as well as the articles. The complete picture, that is where the truth hides. If you read one day’s paper you get only a snapshot in time. But if you read the paper day after day, its depth starts to emerge. The swings and stories begin to balance out. A fuller picture takes hold. The reality of life starts to pile together. A truth emerges from the overlap.
Look at the corrections sections, where newspapers admit their faults. Suddenly the medium seems almost human.
Otherwise it’s all fake news. But only if you believe it.
This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.