Truth is a slippery concept, and philosophers since Aristotle have battled over its meaning. The most intuitive and widely adopted understanding of truth is that of correspondence theory – the idea that “true propositions tell it like it is;” that “for a proposition to be true is for it to correspond to the facts” (Blackburn & Simmons 1999, 1). The correspondence theory assumes that the “truth” about a particular event or object is constituted by a set of “facts.” The more skillfully a phenomenon is described, the closer the description gets to the “truth” of it. Such a conception imbues media content and its makers with phenomenal authority, and is central to arguments about the importance of media professions.
Along those lines, Walter Lippmann (1991, 31) famously suggested that to create a correspondence between “the world outside” and the “pictures in our heads,” we need a battalion of responsible expert journalists to ensure proper “representation of the unseen facts.” Ettema and Glasser (1998) have pointed out that journalism’s belief in correspondence theories of the truth is captured in the extensive use of metaphors of glass to understand and describe news: When we refer to the news as a “mirror of reality” or a “window on the world,” we assume that media content is straightforwardly referential; that there is a one-to-one relationship between the “true facts” of an event and the reality represented in news stories.
As McNair (1998) suggested, the cultural authority of journalism derives from its discursive status as truth. This status, in turn, is underpinned by the belief that it is possible to separate facts from values and the observer from the observed; that journalism can capture the world in its entirety. Such a belief underlies the ideals of the journalism profession, and is closely tied to key journalistic “strategic rituals,” including ideals of objectivity, and the celebration of accuracy, fairness, and balance in reporting. It provides media producers with a set of readymade justifications for their practices, but also grants them the privilege of being the masters of our collective truths.
The commitment to truth-telling remains a cornerstone of journalism codes of ethics in western liberal democracies, and a key defense against encroachments on freedom of speech. However, as Ekström (2002, 271) has pointed out, the presumptions about truth inherent in the epistemology of news reporting are problematic insofar as “truth is largely reduced to a matter of the accuracy of individual facts,” and journalists do not necessarily critically reflect on “how true or accurate the news story as a whole may be” (emphasis in original). That is to say, this epistemology does not take into account the problem, memorably described by the Commission on Freedom of the Press (1947), that it may not be sufficient to provide the fact, because we also need to know the truth about the fact.
Scholars in media studies and beyond have nudged at journalism’s commitment to a correspondence theory. In particular, proponents of a constructivist perspective on truth in media content question the idea of a direct denotative relationship between language and reality. Instead, such an approach starts from the presumption that all truths are contingent because reality is ultimately socially constructed through our use of language. In communication studies, James Carey’s work has been associated with a constructivist perspective on the truth. His position is encapsulated in the definition of communication as “a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (1992, 23).
Rather than assuming a fixed external reality that stands in a one-to-one relationship to accounts of that reality, Carey proposes that we actively make the world through the stories we tell about it. In today’s mass societies, most of our store of knowledge about the world comes from mass media, rather than from personal experience. This means that media content plays a key role in shaping our views of reality and our notion of truth. In this vein, Miller (1998, 5) described media forms as “technologies of truth” or “popular logics for establishing fact,” suggesting that the multiplication of media, genres, and spaces of reception over the past century has seen the means and sites of truth production increase.
If truth is viewed as socially constructed through mass media content, we must also ask who gets to make our collective truths, and what the consequences are of these truthmaking processes. As Gamson et al. (1992, 374) suggested, “the lens through which we receive [media-generated images of the world] is not neutral but evinces the power and point of view of the political and economic elites who operate and focus it.” Similarly, scholars such as Herman and Chomsky (1995) have criticized the media for failing to seek out the truth, instead “manufacturing consent” by propagating an elite consensus through the selection of some facts and stories, and the neglect of others. As such, these scholars point to the idea that the truth of media content is essentially hegemonic. Hall et al., in their classic work on media coverage of mugging, Policing the crisis, substantiated this view in their influential description of primary and secondary definers. Primary definers – the accredited representatives of major social institutions – come to establish the primary interpretation of the event in question. This primary interpretation comes, over time, to be accepted as the “truth” of that event. Arguments against this primary interpretation put forth by secondary definers are then forced to insert themselves against this already-established framework (Hall et al. 1978, 58).
Constructivist perspectives also underpin the approach of cultivation theory, associated with the work of Gerbner et al. (2002). Cultivation research has demonstrated that television, as the common storyteller of our age, cultivates shared conceptions of reality among viewers. Over time, through repeated exposure to television content that “define[s] the world and legitimize[s] the social order” (Gerbner et al. 2002, 194), heavy television viewers converge toward the dominant television image of everything from violence and crime to science. As a result, heavy viewers perceive the world as a “mean and dangerous” place, and experience a heightened sense of risk. They are therefore more likely to be socially conservative, and to give their consent to institutional authority and accept its use of force.
Similarly, work on framing acknowledges that when media tell stories, they do not straightforwardly represent the facts, but rather promote particular ways of understanding these facts. To frame is “to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (Entman 1993, 52). The framing of texts has been shown to influence the opinions of audiences on issues as varied as the rights of AIDS patients, affirmative action, and the interpretation of political news. By framing “the facts” in certain ways, media narratives privilege some truths over others. Concerns over the social construction of reality through mediated representations also surface in debates over the role of public relations practitioners and political consultants in shaping news stories, “spinning” the truth in ways that benefit special interests, rather than the common good. Deceptive or untruthful political communications, crafted by such hired guns, are seen to be at the heart of an increasingly negative, cynical, and manipulative political debate that might ultimately contribute to a decline in citizen participation.
Truth And Authenticity
Finally, communication scholarship has shown that consumers of media are often concerned with the truth of texts in a rather different sense: audiences judge whether content is authentic, or whether it is “thought to be true to the essence of something, to a revealed truth, a deeply felt sentiment, or the ways these are worded or otherwise expressed” (Leeuwen 2001, 393).
For example, in Hill’s study of viewers of reality television, she found that audiences looked for “‘moments of authenticity’ when the performance breaks down and people are ‘true’ to themselves” (2005, 176). In studies of broadcast talk, “authentic” forms of public discourse are ones in which “traces of performance are effected or suppressed” (Montgomery 2001, 398). The more fresh and spontaneous an appearance is judged, the more “truthful” it seems. Similarly, in audience participation genres, including television and radio talk shows and letters to the editor, media producers make decisions about what voices to include on the basis of judgments of authenticity. Such judgments often assume that people can only speak truthfully about matters about which they have personal experience (e.g., Livingstone & Lunt 1994). In the context of a variety of such participatory genres, such assessments form the basis for a valorization of the voices of “ordinary people” and a dismissal of experts and figures of authority, who are seen as less truthful.
Underlying these views is an apparent paradox: although the media are the key source of our collective truths, there is also a widely held belief that access to media power, and the wealth and fame that go along with it, corrupt individuals and groups, making their contributions less truthful. As McLeod (1999) demonstrated, African-American hip-hop discourses, faced with threats of assimilation from the white mainstream, have been centrally preoccupied with notions of authenticity. Artists insist that they are “keepin’ it real,” or staying true to their roots instead of “selling out.” When looking at the content of media, then, truth and its attendant notions of fact, objectivity, and authenticity remain contested and nebulous ideas, used strategically by scholars, media workers, stars, and audiences alike.
- Blackburn, S., & Simmons, K. (1999). Introduction. In S. Blackburn & K. Simmons (eds.), Truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1–28.
- Carey, J. (1992). Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
- Commission on Freedom of the Press (1947). A free and responsible press. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Ekström, M. (2002). Epistemologies of TV Journalism: A theoretical framework. Journalism, 3(3), 259–282.
- Entman, R. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51–58.
- Ettema, J., & Glasser, T. (1998). Custodians of conscience: Investigative journalism and public virtue. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Gamson, W. A., Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Sasson, T. (1992). Media images and the social construction of reality. Annual Review of Sociology, 18, 373–393.
- Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (2002). Growing up with television: The cultivation perspective. In M. Morgan (ed.), Against the mainstream: The selected works of George Gerbner. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 193–213.
- Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., & Roberts, B. (1978). Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state, and law and order. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
- Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1995). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Vintage.
- Hill, A. (2005). Reality TV: Audiences and popular factual television. London and New York: Routledge.
- Leeuwen, T. v. (2001). What is authenticity? Discourse Studies, 3, 392–397.
- Lippmann, W. (1991). Public opinion. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. (Original work published 1922).
- Livingstone, S., & Lunt, P. (1994). Talk on television: Audience participation and public debate. New York: Routledge.
- McLeod, K. (1999). Authenticity within hip-hop and other cultures threatened with assimilation. Journal of Communication, 49, 134–150.
- McNair, B. (1998). The sociology of journalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Miller, T. (1998). Technologies of truth: Cultural citizenship and the popular media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Montgomery, M. (2001). Defining “authentic talk.” Discourse Studies, 3(4), 397–405.