Thought exercise: What if the public didn’t care about truth?

Truth is one of the bedrock principles of journalism, as it should be.

But what if the public decided it placed zero value in truth? What if the public decided it sought nothing more than affirmation of existing beliefs, even if it came at the expense of truth? What if the audience cared about truth as much as they care about how the newspaper tastes?

Would the news media then adjust how it values truth? Would it stubbornly hold tight to truth as a bedrock principle, even as the public decided it would no longer support that kind of product? Would it shift along with the public, giving them what they want by doing away with fact-checking and ethical responsibilities?

Which would be the right decision?

This is an intentionally absurd, heretical question. I’m curious to see how journalists and non-journalists respond, and I hope there’s some good action in the comment thread.

  • Jeff

    Speaking as a former working journalist who views the matter from the dark side of public relations, I think to a large degree we are there already.

  • Jeremy

    There are certain publications out there already. Look at the tabloids and even the “fake” news sources. (23/6 and the Onion)
    However, I personally believe that truth should prevail no matter what the public believes or wants.
    Unfortunately, that is not a good business model. If the public wants “feel good news” that is what they are going to read.

  • If people simply stopped caring about the truth, I’m not sure news outlets could continue to exist. People would just tune out – what would they care? The news media could toss truth out the window, but they’d only be lying about the truth no one cares to hear.

    Now I’m dizzy.

    The second people stop caring about the truth and the news media shifts to meet that, they are no longer the news – they’re fiction. And if most are like me, they’d rather read a book or watch a movie.

  • I love absurdity and heresy, and daydreaming especially. To me, the question hinges on how broadly you frame “truth.” If you mostly mean stuff like getting the facts right and not making up quotes, “fact-checking and ethical responsibilities,” no, I don’t think journalism as a whole would move away from those things, and I don’t think humans will ever stop valuing those things.

    But, if by “truth” you mean something broader, like worldview and “what the world is really like” that incorporates the nuances into an accurate overall framework, then yes, I think journalism has always struggled with this and would undoubtedly move away from it if we nonjournalists stopped caring about truth in this sense. The most flagrant violation of truth in this sense are the small set of formulas which 95% of news stories are forced into. If we stopped caring about truth, it would become all formula and zero nuance.

  • Ahhhh, a Pandora’s Box for Christmas. This would make for a great roundtable discussion, especially if beers were involved.

    In order to assess whether or not the public cares about truth, I think you need to define “truth.” Which takes me back to all those philosophy classes I took in college. Which makes my brain hurt.

  • SevenFishes

    Since it’s just an exercise…I think that most media exists purely at the whims of the public as it stands now. We (the public) decide what media exists either by directly purchasing media (newspapers, magazines, etc.) or indirectly by using the products and services advertised/presented by the media we are reading/watching.

    I’m half laughing as I write this because there are already examples of this in the market. Weekly World News…alien babies, Sarah Palin shooting Bigfoot, etc. As long as there are enough people willing to buy it, someone will publish/broadcast it.

    That being said, if there were to be a shift in public desire, simple economics would drive most media to present what the audience is willing to purchase.

    As far as that being the “right” decision, if I’m depending on revenue gained by publishing a daily paper, the “right” decision is the one that keeps a roof over my head, and keeps my family fed.

    Regarding “truth” in the news, I’m not convinced even now. There’s so much that transpires on any given day that there’s no way to publish it all, no one person would be able to consume it even if it was published, so someone makes decisions about what to tell, and we accept that as the “truth” of the day.
    Facts are facts, and in some cases, that works for itself. When something like a road closure is presented, the start and end times, where the closure begins and where use of the road resumes, those are presented as “truth”, but we all (should) know that they are really best guesses, since work may be delayed due to weather, or the work area may be extended.
    There’s a headline today, “White House considers help for car makers” that could just as easily read “White House considers spending 14 billion taxpayer dollars to keep overpaid UAW workers employed”. I think both headlines could be considered “true”. The facts support either view. There’ nothing false being presented.

    There are always going to be journalists that are passionate about presenting the truth, finding the facts, and making sure the public is aware. For that, I’m grateful. Unfortunately, there’s so much going on that we are probably never going to be capable of absorbing it all, and so will remain woefully uninformed regarding most of the world around us.

    Speaking of which, I watched about 90 minutes of news last night, and didn’t see any mention of a pay raise for federal judges being included as part of the auto industry bailout. Did I miss it, or was it just not important enough to tell me?

    http://primebuzz.kcstar.com/?q=node/16045

    By the way…In no way, shape, or form is this intended to be disrespectful, judgmental, or derisive in any way, shape or form. I thank you (and those in your profession) for what you do, and appreciate the opportunity to contribute.

    Thanks again.

  • Erin

    The beauty of The Onion and The Daily Show is that they can discover some truths that CNN and the NYT can’t because they can poke fun at the press release spin.

    That said, as a journalist, I hope I’ll never be faced with decision to either print the truth versus pleasing readers. I’d like to think many readers come to the newspaper to read the truth, not to see their views mirrored on ground up dead trees. That scenario reminds me of a Jose Saramago book.

  • Steve K

    Dan, I think this idea is a great exercise in thought.

    The two best articles I have seen on this idea are the following.

    http://www.ornery.org/essays/warwatch/2008-10-05-1.html – Orson Scott Card

    http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell100308.php3 – Thomas Sowell

    Card’s (Card is a registered Dem) scewering of the “Media” on the most recent election is fairly honest. He states that the media threw softballs at one campaign while grilling the other.

    Sowell states in his expert opinion, that the true facts behind some current events were completely ignored, and not only that, but they were outright lied about. When one campaign answered a question, it was taken as truth and left at that, with no investigation of the answer. While the other campaign would answer the question, and have the answer dutifuly investigated. Why? Because we can trust one side more than the other? Because that’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard.

    I don’t have a problem with the press pushing, pursuing and being aggressive for the facts. In fact, I want this. But when you only investigate one side’s answer, then you are doing everyone a diservice.

    When a news anchor dared to go after one side (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj8gmSuwbAc) she was laughed at and insulted by a Vice Presidential Candiate, “Did you really write those questions yourself?” Not only did the media not blast the man for being a jerk, but they let the campaign get away with what they did next. After that, the campaign cut off all contact to her news station, AND the National Media let the get away with it. It was if the campaign just wished its problems away and the media took care of it.

    Why, for all the above things? Is it because the People don’t care about the truth? Or is it because the media wanted to sway something a certain way? Or a combination of both?

    I think if the public no longer cared for the truth, then the news and media sources would turn to writing semi-fictional stories. The news would just become another form of entertainment to further the human drama.

  • Daniel

    An interesting question coming at an “interesting time” in our history. I am not sure that people understand any more the relationship between “Truth” and “facts.” At times facts seem to just get in the way of what people “know” the truth to be (which of course tells everyone more about our ideological position than it does about any real issue.)

    Don’t let science and debunking get in the way–the “911 Truthers” will tell you the US Government took down the WTC. Don’t let facts (or definitions of words) get in the way–George Bush and the intelligence community weren’t wrong in thinking that there were WMD in Iraq–they “lied.” Let’s not let a profession of faith get in the way–Obama is Muslim! (we have PICTURES! LOL)

    I would love to see a discussion about re-energizing the media to focus on reporting “facts” and let the truth emerge.

    Thoughts?