The Perpetual Deliberation of Truth and Free Speech in Journalism

In a media wrought with lies and sensationalist scandals, it’s not out of the question to state that public distrust of the media has increased. As a practice that produces knowledge, journalism’s utmost goal is to seek the truth, but how does one find absolute truth when the human element is involved? The answer itself is in that question. With varying degrees of human comprehension, the absolute truth is nothing but a fable, and acknowledging this, journalists must strive to achieve a practical form of truth.

Professor Mike McDevitt, a journalist and professor from the San Francisco Bay area, has had years of experience with this concept of truth in journalism, and states that, “Truth is indexed to human understanding, and human understanding is always flawed but hopefully progressing in various areas of knowledge.” With this optimistic outlook on the conflicts between the human element and the truth, it is hoped that the more knowledge gained, the greater the progression.

Unfortunately, it is rarely agreed upon that one has found the absolute truth, but professor, currently at CU Boulder, author, editor, and journalist Paul Voakes believes that this should not bar journalists from attempting to find the greatest possible degree of truth. Voakes states, “We’re not perfect, but that does not stop us from trying to be perfect. Truth is the ideal that we can never convince the world we are achieving, but that does not stop us from trying to achieve that ideal.”

The actual practice of journalism itself is also called into question when examining the goals of journalism. What defines, or does not, define one as being a journalist is constantly contemplated. “Journalism is a profession, despite what many media educators claim, and a journalist is someone committed to professional principles that guide the production and dissemination of knowledge in ways that facilitate democratic self-governance,” Professor McDevitt says on the concept of journalism as an occupation.

The arts and the practical sciences are rarely used as comparisons to one another, but when looking at the methods, there are striking similarities. Providing another view on journalism as an occupation, Professor Voakes acknowledges that, “Journalism is a practice, we verify statements, and this gets us closer to the truth. We can look at journalism as scientific method; we seek to verify hypotheses.”

Seeking the truth itself, though, can be a dangerous business. With laws that guide the United States, the degrees that truth can be revealed are often varying, especially with the conversation over the First Amendment, granting the people freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. The limits on free speech and freedom of the press are regularly debated, and Professor Voakes declares that, we as citizens have, “Given the job of limiting free speech to the court system, and judges are constantly in the business of interpreting what it means to have free speech and freedom of the press.”

The latest case revolving around the First Amendment has been that of Barrett Brown, a journalist and member of the activist group, Anonymous, who was sentenced to 63 months in prison for leaking confidential files from government contractor Stratfor. In his case, the Supreme Court decided that there was a limit on free speech and that Brown does not hold the title of journalist. Brown violated the privacy of others, and Professor Voakes contends that, “Everybody deserves a certain basic space for personal privacy, and when people invade that personal privacy, the courts of America have said that they can be punished.”

On the other hand, what may be considered free speech to the citizens and government of the United States, may not be considered free speech to those coming from different cultural backgrounds, and this is where the real struggle takes place. The United States has a relatively homogenous political culture, and the nation as a whole has basic understandings of free speech, but for those coming from different political and cultural backgrounds, there’s a whole new set of ideals and morals.

A perpetual deliberation on truth and free speech is presently in full swing, and this debate will not be shelved anytime in the near future.

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