Interpretations of Truth in Traditional Journalism

  • Julie Hedgepeth William's article in American Journalism: History, Principles, Practices claims that "traditional media [at the end of the 20th century] was firmly convinced that "truth" meant "the world as it is." (p 12). Ms. Williams also points out that historically, the notion of the "world as it is" or the objective description of reality has been problematic and unuseful. She claimed that different newspapers, particularly the penny press papers in New York, were more concerned with driving events in certain directions. So the problem is not about describing the world, it is about accuracy within a particular perspective.

Speculative Breakdowns in Interpretations

We would like to open up the perspective that the notion of the truth as the “world as it is,” which we believe has been problematic since the beginning of journalism, misses a fundamental part of what it is to be human. In our interpretation, based out of existential phenomenology, human beings are concernful individuals, whose shared worlds are shaped out of evolving social practices, conflicting concerns, moods, and narratives that they inherit and project. To approach human beings differently, or better to say “human realities”, as objective or reducible to just one, produces confusion, conflict, and blindness. To attempt to be objective hides the observer that each individual or particular collective is of their worlds.

We would like to use this page to help open a discussion of what journalists can do when they "tell the truth" in a way that makes being human a value, not a liability, and that orients journalists more powerfully to enriching the public sphere. We consider those two options to be very interesting possible orientations for journalists in a networked world where the diversity of observers is a reality and where clinging to truth as "being objective" becomes a dangerous possibility.

Our Emerging Interpretation

"The World as It Is"

One claim is that saying that truth is "what the world is" misses that we as humans don't observe events "as they are", but, in the same moment that one event shows up as occurring, it is because it already exist in a interpretative framework that is embodied in the observer. If a liberal and a conservative in the US have a conversation about climate change today, you could have two perspectives. One that it is "true" or a "certainty about the world" that climate change is happening, is being produced by humans, and is a extreme risk for stability in our natural and social world. The other "truth," stated with as much certainty is that climate change is a "hype," produced by Al Gore to increase sales of his movie. Both sides are certain of the "truth" as a facticity of the world instead of what the observer that they are of the world is bringing forth.

Or, a more humorous example can be found in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. A pilot flying over a isolated area of Africa drops a coke bottle out of his window. It lands in the Kalahari Desert and a tribesman, who had never seen modern technology before believes it is a gift from the Gods and brings it back to his village. The village interacts with that strange object (a bottle for modern westerners drinking soda) as they know how: as a tool, a toy, and eventually a weapon, but not as a "coke bottle." What the coke bottle "is" is not a 'coke bottle" but is how this object/event shows up in the world of the observers.

Truth in Different Historic Communities

Above, we discussed that there is not just one "truth;" there are many truths. A basic issue for us to take care of now is the following: what we mean by the word "truth" is already controversial; truth is a word that can be used to make many different distinctions. What the word distinguishes depends on the space of practices in which it is used and the kind of actions that the word allows us to observe, assess, and perform. Below we show this phenomenon in different historic communities with different social practices:

Scientific Knowledge

In science, we understand truth as a claim on the power of a particular theory to allow us to make observations, assessments, and deliver new promises. It is how a theory migrates from a conversation between several people in a university to a "truth" that shapes the realities of a large majority. For more on this, please see our page: Concepts, Theories, and Facts.


In mathematics and logic, truth shows up in the following style of question: “Is this statement made in this mathematical universe true or not?” Truth here is a claim on the validation of a particular logical statement made in a well-defined context. From logical rules, axioms, and previously verified mathematical results, mathematicians determine: 1. whether a statement is true, and 2: under what circumstances it is true.

The strength of mathematics comes from this very restrictive practice. The process by which mathematicians build true statements often use exceptions or tricks. "This statement is true for all real numbers except 0," or "this technique applies only for surfaces of degree 1."

We call this form of truth, proof.

Our Day-to-Day Reality

In our daily life, we distinguish another form of truth, or what we call reality, as a consensual articulation of a shared world. At work, in our private life, or in a bar, we often call for other people to become "real" or "face reality," as if reality were something that was already there and that we can describe. We don't see that when something becomes a reality, it does so not because it is external and fixed. Instead, it is rich enough, useful enough and it brings enough future so that people accept it as a good, plausible interpretation of their affairs. Realities are a historical phenomenon -- they won't last forever -- but people choose to play in that reality in order to produce new possibilities and actions for their future.

When we talk about reality, there is a lot of work that was done before for that reality to become a reality. Before that reality emerged, there was a controveersial space; there were competitive approaches. In today's world, global warming is becoming a reality because the controveersial interpretations are becoming marginal. But 100 years ago, the environment was a marginal issue; it was more or less an infinite resource to be exploited for the profit of the private.

And before controversial interpretations, there are only emergent facts -- something which appears as remote to us that we are unable to attach possibilities or consequences for our future. (See Concepts, Theories and Facts.) Right now, we have a story that the universe was brought out of a Big Bang. We can ask, "How will that thing affect my life? Is it good or bad? If we accept that interpretation, what will change in my life?" "I don't know." And maybe in 100 years, we will have at least two sides: one in favor of the Big Bang and one against the Big Bang. And the consequences of the Big Bang as a theory about the universe will be more or less useful for our futures. So it would be a then be a controversial interpretation.

Each time that you invite people to share a different interpretation, you are asking them to share a different reality. So different realites open and close possibilities. If you change an interpretation -- a reality -- you affect the possibilities for people. That is why people can be very reactive in defending a reality, because it is not about reality. It is about the possibilities that that potential reality discloses for them.

So the discussion about what is "real" and "reality" is mis-oriented. You are trying to resolve with "objective data" was it not a matter of "objective data." It is already a matter of social creativity and interpretations. It belongs to the ethical and the aesthetical; it doesn't belong to the measures already constrained to a scientific field.

The Internet as Reality

Let's take the Internet to show this phenomenon. At the beginning of the 90s. when people spoke with large corporations saying that there is "something called the Internet" that might be relevant for them, some replied, "Yes. But it is too little and unimportant and right now. I have problems with my profit in my credit card division, and there are problems with bad mortgage lending, so let's talk about those things. They are more "real." The Internet was "just a fact" as nobody was able to ascribe to that event big opportunities or big dangers.

In the mid-90s, the situation was very different. People said, "Wow. The Internet is here, and it is less expensive to send information to customers over the Internet than over the phone, and it is much cheaper than dealing with the customer than through our branches." And others responded with, "No. We have our branches already set-up and so we should focus our energy there. And if we have all these different and new means of communication, we are going to confuse our customers." The Internet existed in controversial interpretations.

And then, in the late 90s, every business knew what to do. They invented migration strategies to move business from the branches to the Internet. They targeted younger markets to move to the Internet while keeping older channels of communication open for older markets. And so on. The Internet was reality.

Truth as Commitment

The main speakers in the domain of truth as commitment are J.L.Austin, John Searle, and Fernando Flores. They distinguished truth as commitment as an assertion -- a verifiable, witnessable event for a particular community. When we use the word fact, we are often distinguishing assertions.

What are we calling an assertion?

First, it is a pattern in which you can create the conditions out of which different people coming from different traditions can be trained and can prepare themselves to be a witness of a particular event. So, to make a true assertion means that you prepare a community with a distinction about what is going to be distinguished. To see this, we show how a professor prepares a community of young chemists to observe a molecule of ethanol.

  • First, the professor needs to say what the molecule is -- what are the elements that constitute the molecule, what are the active binding substances, etc.
  • Second, she shows them visual diagrams of ethanol to help them to identify the molecule.
  • And finally, the professor trains the young chemists to observe the molecule in the lab. She puts the solution under a microscope and asks them, “What are you looking at? Are you able to identify the molecule?” And the beginners struggle because they will see multiple shapes, multiple colors, poor resolution, etc. So a person who has previously been trained in how to observe the molecule with look into the microscope, point out a molecule and say, “There's one. Can you see that?” “Oh yeah. Now I see it.” “And can you see the ones at the top left of the slide?” “Oh yeah. And look, there's two more.” Now the young chemists are experts in identifying the molecule, ethanol.

And so beginners start with a linguistic distinction, and then they develop the skill of exercising that distinction. In the end, they have a body -- a nervous system -- which can perform that distinction.

So, why is this interesting? Because assertions are a basic commitment that human beings invent together in order to recognize events and patterns of events in a shared world. Without “events happening,” there is no world. So it is one of the more basic components, often the most solid component, of our shared worlds.

J.L. Austin, a philosopher of language from Oxford, noticed the pattern that when you assert something, you are doing three things at the same time:

  1. You are describing the act you are doing (i.e. exercising a commitment to provide evidence under standards upon which have been previously agreed ),
  2. You are describing the type of assertion you are doing (eg. “we are in California” -- California being a state in the United States of America),
  3. You are using a force that orients the listener of your assertion to the quality of the evidence that you have. (i.e. You could say, “I guarantee we are in California.” This implies that you can prove you are in CA, you will take responsibility if you are wrong, you will compensate the other if you are wrong, etc. If you say, “I suppose we are in California.” it means you don't have direct evidence. You have indirect but plausible evidence. "Well, we were moving west for this many hours, but I don't have a map and I don't know the geography, so, I suppose we are in California.” Or you could say, “I predict that we are going to be in California.” This means that you are doing an assertion today which can only be verifiable at some specific future time.)

Assertions are very fundamental in creating shared worlds.

Truth in Open Journalism

The dimension of "truth" that we propose open journalists "seek" can be found in the following practices:

  1. The articulation of the consequences – or horizon of possibilities – a particular event has on a set of relevant dominant collectives and marginal emerging collectives.
  2. The disclosing of the disclosers of that event.
  3. An openness to having those interpretations critiqued and to bringing new controversial interpretations. [[[Open_Journalism:_Principles_and_Practices/Transparency|See Transparency]]]

We suggest the above distinction of truth as important for open journalists in thinking about how they disclose the world. The world we disclose -- how the world shows up for us -- is based in the biological unity that we are – with practices, concerns, moods, and narratives. As we “talk about the world,” we are disclosing the observer we are of the world, and are orienting ourselves and our observers to certain future possibilities. To seek the "truth" in journalism means showing an event from multiple

We also suggest the role of open journalists be oriented to being meta-disclosers – the disclosers that disclose the disclosers. Today, we live in a world where people are oblivious about the discloser; they don't even see that they are disclosing. So the role of journalists is to reveal the disclosers and the opportunities of that discloser.

Of course, each of us open journalists also have values, concerns, etc.. And so one of the things Open Journalists need to disclose is the kind of discloser each of us is. We can get something about the type of disclosers we are by ourselves, but most of learning about who we each are as disclosers happens as we are disclosed by other people that we trust, respect, admire, or whom we have declared our mentors. And so we need to listen carefully, because most of the time we are very blind about the kind of disclosers that we are.

See Disclosing New Worlds

Relevant Collectives and Marginal Emerging Collectives

By distinguishing disclosing, we produce the distinction of relevant collectives and marginal emerging collectives. Now have a new problem about assessing what are the relevant audiences. [Relevant audiences are directly affected by the events (an assessment), indirectly affected people from local community, marginal perspectives on the events (what does the punk/expert/minority think about the city, etc.) (currently bring expert not as marginal speaker but as objective opinion on matter) (what are standards for determining what is each style of collective?)]

[Assessment of a good reporter if you are able to bring that whole map of conversations and to articulate the important opportunities and tensions in that?]

[Building practices (networks, conversations) to unsettle a journalists assessments on which are relevant communities?]

Other Uses of "Truth"

There are other distinctions of truth belonging ethical, moral, and existential phenomenology. This includes the notion from Ancient Greek of "being true to oneself,"

In the Social Sciences

In social sciences -- sociology, economics, etc. -- truth can be understood as a claim on the explanatory power of a particular theory, or the capacity of a particular theory to make predictions. The value in economics comes from how well a theory can predict how the market will move or if

In Ethics and Spirirituality

Claim on what belongs authentically to a particular individual or community.

This distinction of truth comes from ancient Greece and distinguishing the people that live their life on their own terms. "Being true to oneself." The worst sin in life is for one not to be oneself.

This is a very complicated assessment because what does it mean to live a true life. It is a very encompassing and holistic assessment. It isn't about being unique or different.

Gandhi, Nietzsche


In spirituality and ethics, truth is a claim on the explanatory power of a narrative -- or faith. In this realm, something is true because you declare your belief in it; . The existence of God doesn't need to be proved; it is a matter of faith. It is a declarative act. However, when you claim that something is true based in a belief, when you use the word "truth" to make an act of faith in a particular belief, you need to be explicit about that act of faith, and the spiritual and ethical framework out of which you are doing this declarative act.


Sincerity ("telling the truth")

Breakdowns in Mixing the Different Flavors of Truth

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