Recovering Truth: What Journalists and Academics Can Learn From Each Other

January 23, 2024
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Scholars and journalists rarely come together except for the occasional interview, which can end up feeling like an interplanetary exchange that unfolds something along these lines:

Journalist (on deadline and slightly frantic): “So, can you summarize your research findings in a sentence?”

Scholar (rolling her eyes and suppressing a sigh): “I don’t think that would do justice to what was a long and painstaking research project on a topic that doesn’t lend itself to quick sound bites.” (At least that’s what I imagine the scholar would like to say.)

This is, of course, a caricature of the two professions, but there’s some truth to the notion that academics and journalists are disparate creatures. While most scholars spend their careers becoming experts in something they care about, the bulk of journalists are experts in almost nothing except how to quickly assimilate the news of the day. Scholars spend a lot of time defining their terms; journalists are more interested in being quickly understood. Scholars measure their output in years; journalists in hours or days. 

Increasingly, however, journalists and academics are finding themselves aligned in unexpected ways. Their expertise is no longer taken for granted; they are accused of liberal bias and deliberate indoctrination; and their credibility is waning in the face of authoritarian and nationalistic movements intent on undermining our notions of what is true and what is not. 

In such a moment, when Americans often can’t agree on even the most basic facts, the question of truth — what it is, what has happened to it, and what happens if people don’t care about it – takes on new urgency.

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Journalists have not been indifferent to this fact. In recent years, they have wrestled both publicly and privately with whether the traditional standard of objectivity, or at least the way it has been practiced in many newsrooms, is nothing more than a shield to insulate them and their bosses from accusations of unfairness and bias. They have considered whether truth would be better served by making room for journalists’ personal convictions and individual experiences.

Some have suggested that journalists should aspire to something a little less slippery than Truth with a capital T. Perhaps they should concede that all they can do is deliver some approximate and changeable version of the truth. Or perhaps they would be better off focusing on what is not true, as do the growing number of news organizations and fact-checking sites that call public officials to account, often in real time, for exaggerations and outright lies.

But if we really are on the brink of becoming a post-truth society, such efforts get us only so far, especially as we brace for a re-run of the last U.S. presidential campaign. In an article about truth and journalism and politics, The Guardian’s Australian editor Lenore Taylor asks the questions that should be haunting us all: “How do we hold on to the truth if the best obtainable version of the truth no longer forms guardrails of public debate and disagreement? How do we filter a firehose of disinformation, or fact check a torrent of lies?” 

The issues are so big and the solutions so opaque that I believe it’s time for a deeper consideration of what constitutes truth and how we as journalists might pursue it. To begin, we need to go beyond the conventions of journalism and consider what the humanities, religious studies, and the social sciences can teach us about truth. There’s much that journalists can learn from thinkers and scholars in these fields, and, as it turns out, journalists have something to teach them as well. 

Plato, Anyone? 

As someone who came up in journalism and never seriously considered getting a Ph.D, I was a bit taken aback when I was asked to help lead a project at my university that would put a bunch of academics together with a bunch of journalists to talk about truth – over the course of three years, no less. But I also had been around scholars long enough to be intrigued. Did they know something about the nature of truth that I didn’t? Assuming they didn’t completely discount what journalists do, was there something I could learn from them?

The “Recovering Truth” project, which I joined in the fall of 2020, included 14 fellows, about half of them scholars and the other half practicing journalists, as well as a handful of graduate students. The scholars came from disciplines as varied as religious studies, English, and political science. The journalists included a writer for The New Yorker, a PBS NewsHour anchor, an NPR editor, an Arizona newspaper columnist, and an award-winning podcaster. 

For the next three years, we met several times a semester to consider truth from the perspectives of politics, philosophy, religion, history, literature, journalism and culture. We debated how religious values and institutions can help or hinder the pursuit of truth; how art, literature and storytelling can be pathways to truth; and what journalists, educators and civil servants can do to regain the public’s trust.

We discussed the relationship between facts and values and between truth and power, how lies and conspiracy theories originate and spread, why Americans don’t trust experts anymore, and the very real threat to democracy when truth no longer binds us.

We read widely and eclectically: Journalists, of course, like Wesley Lowery and Masha Gessen, but also Plato, Oscar Wilde and Pope Francis, philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jennifer Frey, historians David Blight and Jill Lepore, political figures like former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, and theologians Serene Jones, Stephen Long and Cathleen Kaveny, a number of whom also spoke to the group.

Many of the journalists, myself included, hadn’t read authors like these since college, and more than a few of us were unsure if we were up for it. 

“It was the first academic space I had been in since college,” said Sarah Ventre, an audio journalist best known for her work as host of “Unfinished: Short Creek,” a podcast about a fundamentalist Mormon community on the Utah-Arizona border. “I felt really intimidated. I felt like I hadn’t read enough, and I was worried that I wasn’t smart enough.”

While Ventre never became entirely comfortable with some of what she called “the hefty, theoretical stuff,” before the seminar ended, she had collaborated on a paper proposal for the American Academy of Religion, produced a podcast series and applied to and was accepted to Harvard Divinity School. 

Her goal is not to become an academic but to become a better religion journalist, the kind who tries to understand why it is that people believe what they believe. 

She has come to realize that scholars think about truth from completely different points of view than journalists do, and they ask different kinds of questions. “I’m thinking more about what it means to not only seek out the truth but also to change the way I make more or less space for one notion of ‘the truth’ as I move through the world and as I report,” she said. “I am seeing so much complexity and nuance in questions of truth than I had before.”

Stephanie Sy, news anchor and reporter for the PBS NewsHour, said the seminar had an almost immediate effect on her reporting. 

“All of these ideas about power and truth were sort of swirling in my brain as I was reporting on the election” in the fall of 2020, she said. “It fortified my resolve to stand for facts but also made me realize how big the challenge is right now because we really spoke in depth about how trust has been degraded in institutions, including journalism institutions. It upped the ante for me as I reported on this election while trying to rebuild trust.” 

At the same time, delving into history and philosophy reminded her that assaults on truth, especially in politics, are not new, which was a relief as well as a “fresh lens into what we’re looking at right now in America.” 

She also has vigorously pursued stories about disinformation and pushed to include more conservative voices in those stories. She has asked more “meta-questions” to try to tease out the motivations and values of those making the news. And she has become more comfortable including references to faith in her pieces for the NewsHour. 

Comments about religion often get deleted from stories out of some sense that they’re irrelevant, she said. “But when I’m out there (talking to people) about their struggles, they mention God a lot. That’s truth to them. … This seminar has definitely made me think a lot about what different truths mean to different people.”

Anand Gopal straddles the worlds of academia and journalism. A contributing writer for The New Yorker magazine, he also has a Ph.D. in sociology and is an assistant research professor at ASU. He’s particularly interested in claims that personal experience is an essential part of truth-telling — or at least provides a kind of privileged access to truth. 

That idea, which is at the heart of current journalistic debates over objectivity, can be traced to the post-modernist movement in higher education which rejects claims to universal truth. Instead, truth depends on personal perspective; everything is relative. 

Until the seminar, Gopal said, “I never drew the connection between that and the way in which people generally outside the academy now talk about certain things like identity and experience and truth … and how that has given shape to a generation of journalists.” 

For the same reason, he said, “People are afraid of saying things that are just true. They’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s true for you’ even though they believe it’s just true. But they’re uncomfortable saying it because there’s such a privileging of subjectivity and subjective experience.” 

Understanding such origins, he said, can help journalists “clarify the terms of the debate and disagreement.” 

A View from the Tower

Some of the academics in the group had interacted with journalists before but almost always on a transactional basis, which made them a little wary.

“I thought that journalists just do their job, and that’s it, and they don’t really reflect that much about what they’re doing,” said Jennet Kirkpatrick, a political theorist and associate professor in the ASU School of Politics and Global Studies. “I didn’t think of them as people trying to do a similar job or interested in similar things. I didn’t realize how much we would have to say to each other and how meaningful those conversations would be to me.”

Each group of professionals ended up being a little in awe of the other, said Tracy Fessenden, a professor of religious studies and co-director of the “Recovering Truth” project. “The scholars can’t imagine how the journalists do the work they do,” she said. “And the journalists say, ‘How do you have time to read all this stuff?’”

Yet each has something to teach the other. “Scholars can help journalists ask better questions,” Fessenden observed, “and journalists can help scholars give better answers.” Sometimes scholars hedge endlessly or complicate things more than necessary, she said. “I think maybe journalists can help scholars be a little more bold.”

Evan Berry, an associate professor of environmental humanities, said interacting with journalists got him thinking about “how you combat corruption of public knowledge using journalistic tools,” such as narrative storytelling. “Journalists focus on narratives in a really different way than scholars who are thinking about the theoretical nugget they’re after or just the data itself, and that’s been helpful to me,” he said.

“We all need a compelling story,” said Sarah Viren, an assistant professor of English who is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and who recently published a book about truth and lies. But she also believes that narratives that hyper-focus on individual experience in order to tell a compelling story can be detrimental to truth. 

“How can I possibly tell a story about individual people but avoid having the reader feel like those people are where the source of truth or lies reside? I think that there are larger systemic problems that we have to look at,” she said. “But you have to figure out a way of talking about those larger systemic problems while still using individual people.”

What struck the scholars most forcibly, however, was how much they have in common with journalists. The media is labeled “fake news” or “the enemy of the people,” while universities are discredited as elite institutions filled with leftist professors who teach young people to disdain traditional American values. 

“One of the things we recognized immediately that both professions have in common is that we’re vital to democracy and we’re vital to civil society,” said John Carlson, who heads ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and who partnered with Fessenden on the project. “Both are truth-seeking institutions,” he said. “And we’re both under attack.”

Kirkpatrick said she didn’t fully understand before how closely the academy and media are tied together in the pursuit of truth. “The ah-ha moment for me was that we need these two institutions to do what they’re doing or democracy won’t work,” she said.

Political scientist Paul Carrese, director of ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, also sees a large overlap between the two groups. Both, he said, are driven by “civic virtue” – a commitment to civic norms and principles and the fair contestation and testing of facts over individual preferences. And both are grappling with their roles in a society in which many of those norms are being shattered. 

“The idea that you could run a major news organization or seek high office in the United States and be unconstrained by truth feels new,” Fessenden said. “It’s not something journalists have had to report on before. And ‘how did we get here?’ is just a huge question … because it didn’t come out of nowhere.”

A Better Answer

It’s fair to say that the “Recovering Truth” project did not recover truth, nor could it have been expected to, given that the nature of truth has been contested for millenia. But we certainly did pursue it, and, if you heed Plato, that’s the point.

In “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth,” American author and journalist Jonathan Rauch re-tells Plato’s imagined conversation between Socrates and Theaetetus, a younger version of himself. As Socrates ponders the meaning of knowledge, proposing one theory after another and then tearing each down, Theaetetus becomes increasingly bewildered. He has no idea how to determine the nature of true knowledge.

No matter, Socrates says, the two can meet again tomorrow to continue talking. 

The lesson, Rauch writes, is that “… acquiring knowledge is a conversation, not a destination. It is a process, a journey — a journey we take together, not alone. Others are always involved. Knowledge is not just something I have; more fundamentally, it is something we have.”

I’m going to remember that the next time I talk to students about what it means to be a journalist. For years, I have told them that if they want to be part of this profession, they have to be committed to the truth. Their job, I have insisted, is to tell the truth.

Not once in 16 years of teaching has a student asked, “What do you mean by the truth anyway? Whose truth? And how do you know it’s the truth?” 

And if they had, I wouldn’t have had a very good answer. In that, I’m like many journalists and teachers of journalism: We’ve never been very clear about what we mean when we talk about truth. 

From now on, I’m going to do my best to offer them something a bit more truthful – something like: “It’s complicated. Let’s talk about it.”

The interdisciplinary project “Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism, and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era,” was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Program in Theology and administered by the ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict in partnership with the Cronkite School. 

Kristin Gilger is Professor Emerita at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. During her 16 years at the school, she served in leadership roles that included interim dean. She previously held editing positions at several newspapers, including The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.