Objectivity Is III: Truthfulness as a Virtue, Composing, 19/02/2015

Continued from last post . . . So here’s my little philosophy of journalism idea, the four aspects of objectivity. That word isn’t really appropriate for what I describe here, though. The myth of the objective is still too powerful, both in journalists’ culture and in wider society. 

Instead, I’ll call it truthfulness. Objectivity is a specific goal to be achieved, or rather to sit infinitely distant from every human attempt to achieve it, our fixed star in the horizon of our worldly action. Truthfulness isn’t a goal in this sense, or even an ideal. Instead, it’s a virtue, an aspect of a human personality that describes a tendency to behave in particular fashions. And it’s better that we behave truthfully than not.

This post is my tentative definition of truthfulness in communications practice, whether as a reporter, a public relations practitioner, or simply as a broadly defined communications expert. Consider these four aspects as my first, tentative conception of a virtue of truthfulness. Any truthful communication must be fair, adequate to the subject matter, revealing, and comprehensive. 

A panel from Paul Cornell's The Girl Who Loved Doctor
, a story that explores the real ethical and political
differences between the world of Doctor Who and ours.
Fairness. The empty platitude version of this idea is “There are two sides to every story.” That’s pathetically underdetermined. Really, there are as many sides to every unfolding story as there are participants (sometimes, more). 

The example I gave at the start of yesterday’s post, that the military dictator deserves equal time to the activists he suppresses, was much too stark a contrast. I chose it as an extreme example to show the limits of fairness.* Fairness is a submission to the moral complexity of the world, an admission that there are rarely heroes and villains. All sides of a conflict, no matter its violence or intensity, can do terrible things and also be upstanding, admirable people. As Paul Cornell once wrote, our everyday world has no monsters to destroy, only immensely difficult problems to solve.

* A note about the concept of reversal in the McLuhans’ Laws of Media. Even here, a principle taken to an extreme expression reverses itself. I may also ask my Hegelian friend B-Rad what this conceptual movement might have to do with Hegel’s concept of aufheben. But that’s a philosophical-historical triangulation for another time.

Adequacy. Reporting is essentially synthesizing empirical observations into an account of what you’ve observed. If you’re going to report your observations truthfully, then what you say has to be adequate to the events and people you’re talking about.

This isn’t the same as total accuracy. We can’t be accurate in any total sense about anything we talk about simply because there’s too much going on. I’ve read some very good journalism lately about the fight in Canada’s parliament over the government’s sloppy new anti-terrorism legislation. Adequate reporting discusses the content of the bill, its possible uses, evaluates the legislation for possible problems and overreach in execution, describes the causes and content of every disputant’s perspective and goal. 

We don't need to know Tom Mulcair's breakfast to
know what pisses him off.
There’s no need to report the menus of all the parliamentarians’ breakfasts on each day of debate. Adequacy requires a genuine accounting for all the relevant facts, which requires discrimination of a situation’s causes.

Revealing. Much of the world is hidden from us. Nothing conspiratorial here. The world is just a murky place where you have to go digging for facts. And the course of people’s daily lives don’t normally bring them into fairly close contact with most of the other seven billion or so humans on Earth. There’s a lot about the world that we don’t know.

Truthful communication should reveal something about the world that most of the people who hear it didn’t know before. One of the best examples in journalism is a lot of the foreign documentary work that VICE has enabled. It has produced some of the best news documentaries that I think I’ve ever seen. I was especially impressed by their coverage of the civil war in South Sudan last winter.

Straight factuality isn’t the only aspect of being revealing either. I think the kind of revelation that Werner Herzog calls ecstatic truth profoundly articulates this principle of truthfulness. His documentaries give you a sense of a phenomenon, the unfolding drama of the world itself, in a way that straight facts and precise accuracy of each piece of information would actually detract from our understanding. 

Consider how his Fata Morgana depicted the horrifying desperation of rural African poverty without ever knowing the names or life stories of any of those people in his film. Or how his Lessons of Darkness gives you a better appreciation for the stark, otherworldly, hellish terror of the 1991 Kuwaiti oil well fires better than any of the journalism of the time, no matter the praise CNN received for their own work.

You need a more poetic way of speaking when you
have to describe the experience of an entire country's
earth literally being set aflame.
Comprehensive. At first glance, you may think that adequacy contradicts this. But the term helps make an important distinction. Adequacy refers to facts, but comprehensiveness is about perspectives themselves. Being comprehensive of an event or situation means including all its constituent narratives, the human stories. 

Here’s an example to illustrate, which I’ll be talking about later on the blog in a different context. I read a fascinating interview with a Syrian dissident named Yassin al-Haj Saleh. He was talking about his disappointment with the Western left because many leftists are blind to the suffering of ordinary Syrians in the region’s current civil war, and under the Assad regime. I’ve seen this myself, talking to fellow self-identified leftists who defend Bashar Assad out of a sense of realpolitik: standing up to Western imperialism and military expansionism requires solidarity with those who oppose them, like Assad.

The nature of their blindness is a lack of comprehensiveness. The only people who factor into such a political analysis are the heads of states and militaries. For all that the left claims to be able the liberation of the people, most of its popular political activism appears rooted in blindness to the affairs of regular folks. 

Now that I have my more conceptual argument laid out, the question remains what exactly all this has to do with communications and brand journalism, which was the original Twitter conversation that sparked this days-long riff of tangents. To be continued . . . 


  1. Good notions. Perhaps some recourse to Grice's Conversational Maxims would be helpful in fleshing out a concept of journalistic adequacy?

    1. I haven't studied Grice's work in detail, but I'll pass along the idea to a friend who has. Thanks for that!