What is the purpose of journalism? At the root of it all, journalism emerged from a need to keep the public informed. People used to have high expectations for journalists, calling the media the “Fourth Branch of Government,” depending on the good men and women in this field to stand their ground as the unbiased observer. Today, we have to check URLs to identify fake news, read the “about us” pages of research centers to determine whether their political stance, and rely on newly emerged fact check sites to assess the basic validity of facts and figures.
The balcony of the Newmuseum in DC proudly displays the First Amendment. Walking among its vast halls, you’ll find relics of stories, photos, and people who used the news to inform the public of what’s really going on. Nick Ut’s napalm girl photo, which showed people the ugly side of the Vietnam War they refused to see. WaPo’s investigation of Watergate and Boston Globe’s exposure of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals, that took down unrepentant men in great positions of power. I’m sure people were proud to be journalists in those days. Today, I wonder if those who enter the field with lofty goals are demoralized by the new identity of journalism, which seems to have the aim of swaying public opinion with whatever it can get away with, instead of simply reporting the truth.
Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist,” he said. People have wanted that for as long as society existed, but journalists have always stood as a first line of defense against this dangerous wishful thinking. Let’s hope that we’ll eventually recover from this current tide and get back to real journalism, when reported truths can again stand up to scrutiny.