Can the truth have two sides?

04 July 2011 - 00:03 By Joe Latakgomo

Lehlohonolo Moagi, who describes himself as an avid newspaper reader, called to take issue with me on the concept of "truth".

He seemed to believe I suggested in a previous column that there are different levels of truth, and drove me to suggest that there is only one truth, which is what newspapers should be publishing.

If that is the case, he argued, why should newspapers be required to publish both sides of the story, because, invariably, both sides cannot be true - one side would be untrue in most cases and therefore newspapers would be guilty of spreading an untruth.

I would like to think he was looking at this issue from a philosophical point of view, rather than as an absolute. Yet, it got me thinking - as it must, and will, many an editor and newspaper critic.

Journalist, philosopher and political commentator Walter Lippman (Lippman House, home of the Nieman Programme for Journalism at Harvard University, is named after him) once said he did not assume that news and truth were synonymous.

For him, "the function of news is to signalise an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act".

And then he made a statement with which we as journalists are possibly all in agreement, saying news is "imperfectly recorded" - as is perhaps all history.

Imperfect though it is, it is still the most reliable record of a nation's life and times. It is still the best indicator of the levels of freedom a nation enjoys. It is still the best social and political barometer of a country.

No journalist can claim he had collected "all the facts" of a news event nor, if he had done so, that his newspaper would have been able to publish "all the facts" about every news item in the paper. And if the newspaper could publish "all the facts", no reader would have been able to read them all.

Moagi also argues that newspapers are often guilty of distortion by omission, an accusation critics and government regularly make.

ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema calls for land-grabbing by the government and the ANC quickly refutes this, adding that it is not ANC nor government policy, Moagi says. But President Jacob Zuma gets up at Albertina Sisulu's funeral and sings about whites having to "let go of our land", and the media ignores it. This, coming from the president, is clearly significant. And then he slams Malema in a subsequent statement.

"Is it coincidence that Malema and Zuma both speak, in different ways, about taking back the land? And why has the media ignored this?" Moagi asks.

Instead, Hogarth, in the Sunday Times, suggests that Zuma "must be the last person in the country who still doesn't have an opinion" on land seizure, he points out.

However, with all the imperfections, and the tortuous nature of news, it is still incumbent on journalists to present the facts that are considered significant to the story in an unbiased manner, and not to slant the story, or to ignore statements of national importance.

Which brings me back to Moagi's thesis: there is clearly merit in what he is saying. The fundamental principle of right of reply means that if an allegation is made against a person, he has the right to present his side of the story and for his side to be given equal prominence.

The argument that journalists use, and which, it seems to me, is the only logical way to deal with it, is that the reader will make up his or her own mind after being presented with both sides. The reader will decide which of the two parties is telling the truth. That, at least, is the theory.

But should journalists be obliged to publish information, knowing it to be false, because it is the affected party's right to state his case? Should such blatant untruths be challenged pre-publication, and how can this be done without being perceived to be prejudiced?

Journalists and their editors should not play God and make such judgments, though. Their responsibility is to present the facts as they have gathered them. The unwanted result of this approach is that readers judge newspapers, rather than the people who provide the information, as "reporting lies".

This is why the credibility of newspapers has been deteriorating over the years, and the strident calls by government and critics like the ANC Youth League are exacerbating this.

Newspapers are merely packages for the news - and some package the news better than others.

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