The controversies and hate filled rhetoric of the 2016 American presidential elections, reminded me of an essay I wrote in 2006 as part of my journalism studies. We are all convinced our beliefs are factual and true, yet those beliefs have come from something we’ve read or heard somewhere. 

It is a timely reminder not everything we read is true, and even those things that are, have a significant bias in them. Writing in a completely truthful, unbiased and ethical fashion is no easy task for the most experienced journalist – let alone your average blogger or Facebook user – and reading without bias is apparently even more difficult!

Philosophers pontificate it endlessly and scholarly journalists debate it ad nauseum, but what is truth? And how can we get to the heart of it? As the profession of journalism descends deeper into the realm of entertainment, it is easy to wonder if boundaries between fact and fiction are blurring.

Historically, journalists have been responsible for bringing news to the public: news about wars and accidents, births and deaths, the inner workings of governments and political bodies, and events in our communities. However, as technological advances have made news more accessible and immediate, the ability to sell a story (whether hard news in a daily paper or a book-length feature delving into an area of public interest) has begun to rely more on entertainment value than fundamental value. Many people will glance through headlines in a newspaper to keep up-to-date, but reading a lengthy feature or a non-fiction book requires a significant time commitment that the writer must be aware of before they even begin writing.

The media are heavily reliant upon advertising revenue, and many people believe advertisers can influence content in the wide stream media. Journalists are dependent on the media to publish their work, either in their capacity as an employee or as a freelancer, so when embarking upon a major work of literary journalism, consideration must be given to target audiences and whether the project can justify the time and expense gone into its production.

Literary journalism has existed since reportage began – John Carey’s Faber Book of Reportage contains hundreds of literary style descriptions of historical life, from the 430BC plague in Athens through to the 1986 fall of President Marcos in the Philippines. The term literary journalism – also creative non-fiction or narrative journalism – is relatively new, although at times it is disputed and controversial. Wikipedia, while not always the most accurate source of information, offers a simple and succinct definition of literary journalism as a “genre of literature… which uses literary skills in the writing of non-fiction. If well written, it contains accurate and well-researched information and also holds the interest of the reader. It allows a writer to employ the diligence of a reporter, the shifting voices and viewpoints of a novelist, the refined wordplay of a poet and the analytical modes of the essayist.”

In contemporary Australia, we find literary journalism in magazines such as The Monthly or Vanity Fair, in the feature sections or magazines of prominent newspapers such as The Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian, or in books published specifically for the purpose such as John Bryson’s Evil Angels or Helen Garner’s The First Stone.

Literary journalism exists to give meaning and analysis to hard news or to areas of social interest.

Jenny McKay distinguishes between literary and journalistic writing in The Magazine’s Handbook: “Literary writing is creative, imaginative, of enduring quality and written by a human being blessed with some mystical quality. Journalistic writing by contrast, is mundane, dull, lacking in creativity and written by a tired cliché-monger who has no sensitivity to the nuances of language.” This seems somewhat harsh to the frontline, hard news journalist, when in reality many have crossed from one genre to the other. Renowned journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Helen Garner and even novelist Mark Twain are just some examples.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please,” later paraphrased as the journalists’ mantra, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. Google this phrase and you find yourself overwhelmed with quotes from every corner of the globe. Yet establishing the truth of this phrase alone is no mean feat. The quote first appears in Rudyard Kipling’s From Sea to Sea and other Sketches as part of an interview with Mark Twain. But is Mark Twain really the originator of the quote? Probably – but there is no way to know for sure. Only Mr Kipling and Mr Twain can be certain of the facts during that interview.

As readers, we can only but trust that what we read is accurate.

Establishing trust with a reader is important for any writer – but establishing that trust is doubly important for journalistic writing. When we read journalistic pieces in a literary style, we have the opportunity to go into the story – to empathise with characters and to relate our personal experiences to the storyline. This is considerably different from other types of journalism in that it presents us with details of emotion and expression, which can only ever be purely subjective. News reporting primarily involves the reproduction of facts in an inverted pyramid style, to give the reader the bones of the story. Literary journalism takes the reader on a much more subjective journey but reporting the truth is still of paramount importance.

The purpose of each journalistic style is quite distinct. When we want to know what is happening in the world, we want hard news, not in-depth analysis – a quick list of facts and some substantiated comments. When we want to know more about an area of interest, we need more than facts. We want background materials, information on all the comings and goings of interested parties, descriptions of people and emotions, and an overall picture of the events surrounding the topic. This literary style can leave the writer wide open to the accusation of confusing personal opinion and truth.

There is much written about the conflict of personal opinion and truth. Many argue that truth is merely an interpretation of facts by the onlooker – and there are countless ways to interpret the witnessing of a single event. A sexual assault, for example, may be considered something completely different depending on whether you are the victim, the perpetrator, or an eyewitness to the event. An eyewitness to the event may interpret things differently depending on their relationship to the people involved, and their own experiences and knowledge of sexual assault.

Australian courts of law rely on witnesses to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, and when those truths are conflicting, the court makes a judgement. However, a court of law has the advantage of prosecution and defence presenting facts for both sides of the story with as much strength and credibility as they can muster. A journalist producing an investigative, literary style, piece may not have the same resources to see both sides in a balanced fashion, and even if they do, they may not give both sides of the story equal coverage because of a preconceived prejudice. While this is true of all journalists, prejudices can become more obvious and magnified when producing a comprehensive literary work.

The ancient Greeks debated the concept of objectivity, and most philosophers seem to have come to a gentleman’s agreement that there is no absolute truth or objectivity. In The Journalist’s Moral Compass,Knowlton and Parsons state that, “If truth cannot be discerned, and may not even exist… then all points of view become equally valid and the best one can do is simply to argue well.” So, if truth and objectivity are so elusive and subjective, how can a reader be sure of anything they read?

The paramount consideration for a writer is to develop a sense of trust with their readership.

This is not always easy to do. Trust assumes a prior relationship, yet all of us must begin somewhere. There is also an added complication – when we catch the media lying, there is prompt coverage and much discussion. The field of journalism has at times been subject to substantive lies – such as Janet Cooke’s fabricated tale of an eight-year-old heroin addict in Jimmy’s World (published by The Washington Post in 1980), or James Frey’s memoirs, A Million Little Pieces (2003) – which were found to be partly fictional. These examples can give the illusion that falsehoods are more common than they really are.

There is also the reality that some readers accept what they read more readily than others do. How many times have we heard a celebrity is pregnant or another celebrity’s marriage is over? The public often believe blatant lies in tabloid journalism, and not everyone can distinguish between highly ethical publications and those that are not ethical at all. It is often joked that journalists are as dishonest as real estate agents and used car salesmen, yet the public must still rely on their sense of trust in the media for the knowledge they require of the world in which they live.

Like any profession, journalism has had its share of poor performers and controversies, but as an organisation, the paramount consideration is truth telling – without truth it ceases to exist. The Australian Journalists’ Association Code of Ethics opens with the following statement:

Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression. Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities. Alliance members engaged in journalism commit themselves to: honesty, fairness, independence, respect for the rights of others.

These are good principles to strive towards, and we all hope journalists ascribe to these ideals.

As a reader however, how can we ascertain the integrity of a writer’s work?

First, we need to consider what exactly “truth” is. Most of us consider ourselves truthful in our lives and our dealings with others. Search the web or any dictionary for a definition of truth and you see the words “fact” and “reality” endlessly appearing. Yet fact and reality can be subjective. While we can all agree that dogs have four legs, one person’s reality may state as fact that dogs are terrifying creatures, while another might claim the dog is humankind’s greatest friend. Both realities are factual and true to the individual concerned. When a journalist tackles a major piece of investigative or literary journalism, they are attempting to share the truth of a story with the readership, but that truth is always coloured by the author’s personal experiences. In writing a literary piece, a journalist may use a wealth of material to convey their story to the reader. Subjective interpretations can inadvertently creep into their observations in all sorts of ways: the description of the physical environment, selection of which quotes to use, descriptions of people’s looks and mannerisms, the emphasis or lack of emphasis upon a particular viewpoint, and the inclusion or omission of certain facts that may seem relevant to one person but not to another.

A misrepresentation of the truth in journalism might be an outright lie, a lie by omission, or a truth that is out of context. Then each of these misrepresentations can have different implications. A typing error or misheard quote can lead a journalist to mistakenly write an incorrect name or some incorrect detail of an event. This type of lie is often irrelevant and easily corrected. However, if the writer chooses to omit pieces of information that put an argument in context, then the intent is to deceive. If a reader starts to feel the author is being deliberately deceptive or dishonest then trust is broken and they may soon lose interest in the material.

Barry Allen’s Truth in Philosophy quotes Emerson as saying, “Truth is such a flyaway, such a slyboots, so untransportable and unbarrellable a commodity, that it is as bad to catch as light”. Allen continues, however, exploring why philosophers are fascinated with the pursuit of this elusive truth: “because it is sublime, divine; because it is an essential part of the best kind of life; because it is useful, instrumental, empowering; because it distinguishes knowledge from opinion or mere belief…”

It is this latter belief that is most at loggerheads with literary journalism.

Distinguishing knowledge from opinion and belief is very difficult indeed.

Some might consider a list consisting purely of facts – with no emotion and no explanation – as being as close as we can get to pure truth. Yet a list of facts can be very distorting. Consider the following brief summaries of famous events:

  • No survivors in plane crash
  • Surprise bombing at US Naval Base
  • Three dead in single vehicle crash
  • Gunman causes mayhem

Each of these events was somewhat more dramatic when put into context: 270 people died in the Lockerbie air disaster, the worlds’ worst terrorist attack until September 11, 2001; the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 claimed the lives of 2400 Americans and heralded the entrance of the US into World War II; Princess Diana died with Henri Paul and Dodi Fayed during a high-speed car crash in a Paris tunnel in 1997; and Martin Bryant killed 35 men, women and children, injuring a further 23, in 1996 at Port Arthur (Tasmania), making history as the world’s third worst peacetime shooting at the time.

Conversely, a list of events can seem more than it truly is:

  • Three great men dead in 12 days
  • Anti-terrorism package to arrive in post
  • Nearly 200,000 Iraqis dead

Famous Australians Peter Brock, Steve Irwin and Don Chip recently died within a 12-day period – sad but coincidental. The much-maligned anti-terrorism fridge magnet campaign started in February 2003 and became all hype and no substance. The death toll for all casualties in the Iraq war is a slippery figure to find. One study conducted by the John Hopkins University claimed the estimate of Iraqi deaths since the war began in 2003 is somewhere between 8000 and 194,000. Obviously, the difference between the two figures is huge and where the truth lies is anybody’s guess. The coalition deaths are listed as being 2896 at CNN’s website, while the Iraq Body Count website claims as many as 46,307 Iraqis have perished. These figures are all wildly variable and perhaps only history will cast a more accurate light the true human cost of the Iraq war.

If an article wants to be credible, it must be truthful, and part of that integrity comes from demonstrating a balanced view. Good literary journalism has many balanced and truthful examples: Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down; Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra has a Cold; and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. These works have been reviewed by their peers and the public and become are generally accepted as being well written, unbiased and truthful. Although obviously even these examples will continue to be analysed and judged for as long as there are people to read them, and the veracity of the storylines will undergo continual reassessment with each generation.

While objectivity and truth are subjective concepts, the essential elements of good literary journalism are trust and a well-balanced story – i.e. one that has been researched and presented all opposing views on a topic. The art of great literary journalism, however, is not in the facts but in the telling of the story. Writing a list of well-balanced, objective truths may seem highly ethical, but at the end of the day, it is probably highly boring. Readers need to feel engrossed in a story and to empathise with characters before making the time commitment to read a substantive piece of literature. It is the responsibility of the literary journalist to gather the necessary facts then collate them in as objective and truthful a manner as they can, but then to present the story in a captivating format without detracting from the essence of the facts.

So, what are our responsibilities as readers?

We must read every piece of work with an open mind. We need to leave behind old prejudices and give other viewpoints the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, we must remember that everything we read is merely someone else’s viewpoint and if we wish to take it on board we have the responsibility to do a little of our own research. The scientific world does not consider a study “proven” unless it has been peer-reviewed and reproduced more than once. Perhaps the same rule should apply to both the writing and reading of contemporary literary journalism – it is not fact until verified more than once.

Truth is subjective and no more so than in contemporary literary journalism. When a writer attempts to engage a reader, they must paint the picture as they see it.

As readers today we have the responsibility to never let the story get in the way of a good fact.