Star public editor: Should getting a message across ever trump accuracy?

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

In expounding on the news as our religion, philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that journalism’s commitment to accuracy could, at times, be sacrificed on the altar of some higher purpose of persuasion.

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

In expounding on the news as our religion, philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that journalism’s commitment to accuracy could, at times, be sacrificed on the altar of some higher purpose of persuasion.

Huh? Really? Now how can I take seriously this new book that seeks to provide “a user’s manual” to the news if its undoubtedly smart and thoughtful author is seemingly willing to discount the most basic and cherished of journalism’s principles?

As I would expect from de Botton, who previously turned his philosopher’s mind to such esoteric topics as The Architecture of HappinessThe Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and How Proust Can Change your Life, his recently released The News: A User’s Manualdoes offer much lofty, idealistic food for thought about the news – both what it is and what it might be in some more perfect world where neither deadlines nor balance sheets matter.

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Much of what he philosophizes about — why do news organizations focus on “the darkness” rather than the hope, why do celebrities merit so much media space, why does news seek to hold bad guys to account — is the stuff of first-year j-school classes, eternal newsroom debate and a career of journalism conferences. de Botton is certainly not the first person to pose the most basic of journalism’s questions: What is news and why does it matter, anyway?

This acclaimed thinker goes further, posing deep questions that seek to determine what today’s always-on news is doing to our minds, our souls. He says news “now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths.” He writes beautifully about the nature of news: “To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and be overpowered,” and “The hum and rush of the news have seeped into our deepest selves.”

I was onboard with the London-based philosopher for some of this, mindful that while his questions are valid, and indeed, important for journalists and our audiences, many of the answers he arrives at reflect the ivory tower thinking of someone who does not work in a newsroom. Still, he makes clear his view is a philosopher’s, not a journalist’s telling us his work has “a utopian dimension” that expresses a “dream of an ideal news organization.”

But de Botton’s credibility as a user’s source on the news took a serious dive for me on coming upon his view that “the capacity to collect information accurately” may be one of the “mistaken assumptions” news organizations have made in determining how to describe the world to their audiences.

The primary goal of news, de Botton suggests, should be to persuade you to care about the world it reports on. And that, he surmises, might demand more artistry than accuracy. His words stopped me cold.

“In certain situations, creative writers may even choose to sacrifice strict accuracy — perhaps by adapting a fact, eliminating a point, compressing a quote or changing a date – and rather than feel they are they carrying out a criminal act (the routine presumption of news organizations when they catch one of their own doing such things), they will understand that falsifications may occasionally need to be committed in the service of a goal still higher than accuracy: the hope of getting important ideas and images across to their impatient and distracted audiences.”

While journalists aim to write with some creativity to interest readers, playing fast and loose with the facts, any such “falsification” is never okay whether one is writing a brief news story or a lengthy piece of “creative non-fiction”. Creative is not a synonym for false.

While I’ve undoubtedly simplified de Botton’s overall context, what his words suggest is indeed a journalistic crime. In an email this week, I asked the author to explain further, told him what I’ve told you here: that this seems to me a significant flaw in his thinking about the news.

Here’s de Botton’s answer: “I am not advocating being inaccurate for the sake of it or out of sloppiness. I am trying to get clear in my mind what makes a journalist great.

“In my view, great journalists like Martha Gellhorn or Norman Mailer are more interested in getting facts to enter the imagination of their readers than in merely piling up accurate facts neatly and serving them up to the reader in undigested form (i.e. ‘Today in the DRC, 20 people died in heavy fighting between rival militias…’). The latter is definitely worthwhile, but it is in danger of not doing something key the news needs to do: which is to get people to care about the facts that have been gathered.”

I get where this philosopher is coming from in regard to the greater picture. Great journalists do and should make you care.

But, never at the expense of the facts.

Here is an edited transcript of my email interview with Alain de Botton:

Q: Why did you decide to turn your mind to the news?

A: “There’s no more powerful force in modern society than the news. It shapes how we see the world, what we judge to be good and bad, important or silly, right or wrong. And yet too often, we don't see the extent to which the news is forming our mentalities.

No one teaches you this at school. It is deemed more important for us to know how to make sense of the plot of Othello than how to decode the front page of the New York Post. We are more likely to hear about the significance of Matisse's use of colour than to be taken through the effects of the celebrity photo section of the Daily Mail. We are never systematically inducted into the extraordinary capacity of news outlets to influence our sense of reality and to mould the state of what we might as well – with no supernatural associations – call our souls.

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