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Modern journalism would have greater public support if it had heeded Lippmann’s warning: “news and truth are not the same thing” 5/24/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Journalism, Lippmann, Truth.
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Earlier this week, David Strom shared with me an article from 10/13/01 that capsulizes one of the key dilemmas of modern journalism. In a story that could have been written about virtually any profession, mathematicians expressed their shock at the differences between what they considered “newsworthy” in math vs. what the science journalists who covered their field considered newsworthy. Assuming the math experts are right, the problem is not with journalists, but with the unrealistic expectations we hold for them. In his book “Liberty and the News,” modern journalism’s “founder” Walter Lippmann set-up the false expectation that newspapers can deliver “truth” by employing journalists who are “patient and fearless men of science who [labor] to see what the world really is.” But just two years later, he wrote another book, “Public Opinion,” in which he completely reversed himself. He had recognized that the goals, working conditions, and limited resources of newsrooms precluded them from being truth factories. He concluded, “news and truth are not the same thing…The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring light to the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and to make a picture of reality on which men can act.” Think of how much less public dissatisfaction there would be if only journalists had embraced the more realistic expectations in Lippmann’s second book instead of the unachievable expectations in his first.

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