These Trying Times
August 11, 2016
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics starts out with a bang: Seek truth and report it.
But how do you know what is true? Where do you seek it, and what have you missed? What happens to it when you decide how to hook readers with a great lede that evokes an emotional response that colors the story a certain way, or when your editor cuts three grafs that you think are essential? What happens when your story goes viral, but you find out you overlooked something critical? How can you be sure you’re reporting the truth when the high-placed source you depend on for access has his own agenda? How do you ensure your own agenda isn’t sneaking into your reporting? For that matter, how will you seek the truth and report it when you became a freelancer and you can barely pay your broadband bill, much less pay the eye-watering amount a public official wants to satisfy your FOIA request?
Okay, it’s not perfect. Reporting, even good reporting, is often incomplete or simply wrong. But there’s still something important there. Seek the truth. Tell it.
This is also what scientists and scholars do in an ideal world. Sure, they may also be seeking tenure, or the next grant, or a job that will lift them out of poverty-wage academic piecework. They may be leery of simplistic truth claims and quick to challenge anyone who pronounces any truth as singularly accurate. They know how very limited our ability to find the truth is in reality.
But . . . but . . . we try. We try when we are careful about how we gather evidence and when we let evidence change our minds. We try when we explain the limits to what we have discovered, when we examine an issue with an open mind, when we don’t immediately dismiss claims that run counter to our beliefs. We try when we strive to be fair, even if we believe pure objectivity is impossible. We try, knowing absolute truth will inevitably elude us.
The current unpleasantness – the most bizarre election in memory (and I’m ancient enough that my memory reaches back to the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy race) – has thrown down two challenges for those of us who still cling to the idea that there is such a thing as truth and seeking it is worthwhile.
The first challenge is the idea that facts are those things you choose to believe. Vaccines cause autism. George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks. Wealth trickles down and tax cuts for the rich create good jobs for the middle class. Humans didn’t cause climate change, evolution is fake, and coal is clean energy. You can find sources that “prove” all of these things. Choose your own reality.
The second challenge is that people can avoid responsibility for public statements by simply saying “that’s not what I meant” or “come on, I was kidding.” Words spoken by public figures don’t work that way.
All politicians lie some of the time, and they often make veiled insinuations – but Donald Trump trumps them all. This week he said his opponent wants to abolish the second amendment. That’s a supposition or a conspiracy theory. It isn’t a fact, though he stated it as if it was. When he said “second amendment people” might be able to prevent that candidate from appointing judges if she’s elected, he later claimed that he only meant that gun owners wield significant political influence. His retroactive interpretation won’t change the fact that many people interpreted his statement as a suggestion that someone with a gun could rid us of that troublesome candidate and the judges she might pick. As David Cohen put it in Rolling Stone, those casual throw-away comments are not just “dog whistles” conveying coded meaning to those who are tuned to a particular frequency. They encourage a particular kind of DIY terrorism. It doesn’t matter that Trump claims that’s not what he meant.
My job, a job shared by all academics who teach, involves helping students understand how information works – where it comes from, why context matters, how to make decisions when you encounter contradictions, and how to use information fairly and responsibly when trying to persuade others. That job is carried out all over campus, but at institutions that focus on undergraduate education, it’s explicitly what our libraries are for. The library is a lab or studio for creating new meaning using existing knowledge. (It’s also a place to study and take naps and socialize, but those are not why we build libraries.) The habits of mind that students pick up in the process are important. They’re learning how to think independently of political messaging, half-baked opinion pieces, superficially-reported news, or the preponderance of opinion among their friends or family. They’re learning to respect evidence and to believe in their own capacity to discern the truth using ethical means.
What we call “information literacy” is so much more than learning how to use libraries or how to avoid bad websites. It’s learning how to read the world around you critically and clearly while also practicing the means of making that world better. You can’t do any of that if you think reality is just a matter of choice.
Remember when Governor Scott Walker tried to remove the words “search for truth” from the mission of the University of Wisconsin? He later said it was a drafting error. There are reasons to believe that’s not true. Whether or not that phrase is explicit on your campus – engraved over a lintel or included in a mission statement – it seems more important than ever that we take it seriously and help students make that search their own, as quaint and naive as it may sound.