Thursday, December 11, 2008

Journalist seeks definition of truth for long, mutually beneficial relationship

I'm in the middle of writing an academic paper that touches on the very nature of truth as it pertains to journalism.

I think it is pretty widely accepted that journalists are in the business of finding and communicating truth. The same is true of scientists and to some extent, detectives.

All three professions have their own process for uncovering truth, and then for communicating it. The question is, are there steps missing in the journalistic process? Based on popular, existing codes of ethics, I think so. And that's what I'm setting out to prove.

In the process I've had to read a wide variety of sources, and often come across side topics which may or may not turn out to be fruitful. For instance, according to a paper by NYU journalism prof Mitchell Stephens, "We're all postmodern now: Even journalists have realized that facts don't always add up to the truth." Which naturally raises questions about postmodernism, about the nature of truth, and about the growing acceptance we have for the need for analysis, interpretation, and context.

In an attempt to better define truth, understanding, and knowledge, I've begun to read about epistemology. While I'm aware that this is just the barest of introductions to the field, I'm troubled by the degree of simplicity they seem to be using; it reminds me of the old physics jokes about assuming a cow is a perfect sphere.

I take two major issues with what I've read so far. The first is the formulation of knowledge as a binary. Epistemology as described in the Wikipedia primer assumes that you either Know or you don't, a binary dichotomy that I believe is artifically constructed. It seems to me that since knowledge must encompass understanding, that knowledge must of necessity be a spectrum, with perfect ignorance at one end and the unattainable perfect knowledge at the other end.

My second concern is that based on the work of philosopher and mathematician Kurt Godel, I had always assumed that even outside of mathematics, to know that you know truth is impossible. Thus, it is not possible to assess whether someone has achieved real knowledge, when knowledge is defined as being true. It strikes me as a waste of time, then, to spend too much energy thinking about a definition of knowledge which, by virtue of its definition, can never be applied.

Now that I've shot off about things I don't understand, please, shoot me down. I look forward to it!

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