Responsibilities of the Media: Are Journalists Responsible for Publishing the Truth?5 October 2020
In 2016, a Daily Mail journalist who broke the scandalous story that David Cameron had placed his private parts in the mouth of a dead pig (aka ‘Piggate’), made the shocking revelation that she lacked any evidence for the sensationalist claim. By this time, the story had been reported by dozens of newspapers and shared by millions via social media. In her defence, the journalist claimed ‘We merely reported the account that the source gave us…we don’t say whether we believe it to be true” and “It’s up to other people to decide whether they give it any credibility or not.” (Oakeshott in Viner, 2016).
Remarking on this story, The Guardian Editor in Chief, Katherine Viner, notes that this revelation was not the first time that unsupported and outlandish claims have been published in the media. This raises the question as to whether journalists should be accountable for playing a kind of epistemic gatekeeping function, viz., of refraining from publishing a story when they lack evidence for its truth, or whether instead, the epistemic labour of assessing a story for truth should fall entirely on the consumer of the news – the reader.
To help address this important and pressing question, media policymakers and stakeholders can helpfully draw from the epistemology of testimony to better understand how epistemic labour should be distributed across journalists and media consumers.
The question that arises then, is whether journalists have a responsibility to publish the truth, or if they should be neutral to the truth which in turn implies an additional level of responsibility and epistemic labour on the reader . The practice of neutrality in the media is sometimes referred to as ‘procedural objectivity’, which is the practice of allowing the audience to make up their own mind on a story, promoting fairness and nonpartisanship as opposed to delivering the truth whenever these goals come apart (Simion 2017). However, the difference between this form of neutrality and the form of neutrality and the type proposed by the Daily Mail journalist, is that journalistic objectivity still promotes the publishing of the truth or facts, but remains objective as to what the journalist’s opinion is on said facts. Our concern, however, is whether journalists are responsible for publishing truths, or does the responsibility of sorting truth from falsehood lie principally with the reader?. An example where this question may arise concerns the recent rumour circulating social media of Kim Jong Un’s alleged death. With North Koreas’ extreme restricted media, reporters are unable to accurately report whether the claim is true or not, with some reports claiming he made a recent appearance at a public event. Journalists would then report his death as ‘neutral’—viz., it may or may not be the case, there is conflicting evidence on both sides. Therefore, it is on the consumer to take responsibility for their belief.
As mentioned, the literature on epistemic responsibility, specifically the responsibility of testimony, can help to bring this debate into sharper focus and arguably answer why we may wish to reject this neutrality approach to journalism.
In the epistemology of testimony, there is a dynamic between a testifier and a hearer which can be compared to the relationship between a journalist, the testifier, and the consumer of the media, the hearer. There have been various discussions to date on this distinction, such as the role that both the testifier and hearer play with regards to knowledge and how to best evaluate the beliefs gained via testimony (Coady 1992, Lackey 2008, Goldberg 2010). Specifically, we can focus here on the role that the testifier plays when they are an expert testifier and contrastingly the hearer is not, in order to assess the various responsibilities that the testifier versus hearer holds.
Firstly, we can argue that a journalist as an expert, compared to the consumer – a non-expert, has greater responsibilities to inform the reader of the truth purely by being an expert on the matter. Take, for example, a Doctor, who is an expert testifier informing their patient of a medical condition they believe them to possess. It seems fair to state that the Doctor has a responsibility to diagnose the patient and inform them of this diagnosis, as opposed to the patient having to take on responsibility for their belief and put in any epistemic work to figure out whether the diagnosis is true or not. Because of the Doctor’s position as a medical expert they have a greater responsibility to convey knowledge. Likening this to the debate between journalists and consumers, the journalists, qua expert, has a greater responsibility to inform the reader of the truth than the reader does to do the epistemic labour themselves.
Secondly, the relationship between an expert and non-expert creates a case where the non-expert is epistemically dependent in some sense on the expert for their knowledge. Referring back to the Doctor example, the patient, who has little or no medical knowledge, is reliant on the Doctor to inform them of their diagnosis, as they have limited (if any) other ways to access the information if not from the expert. Similarly, this applies to journalists as experts. The consumer has little to no other way to access the knowledge they seek, and the journalist, as an expert, is in a better position to know and inform the consumer of the truth, and in turn, the consumer who is in a less privileged position to access the truth is dependent on the journalist for their knowledge. The epistemic dependence on experts in these scenarios demonstrates further how they have a greater responsibility to inform than the consumer does.
In summary, by examining the relationship between testifiers and hearers, it can be argued that journalists have a greater responsibility to publish the truth as experts in the domain, meaning they have a responsibility to inform when they can do so. Additionally, because consumers of the media are in some sense epistemically dependent on the journalists for their beliefs, journalists have greater responsibilities to convey knowledge. In these above contexts, the testifier has certain responsibilities, particularly for their consumers’ beliefs. I have demonstrated how this can also be mirrored in journalism, and how, epistemically, journalists have a greater responsibility to publish the truth than the consumers do to take responsibility for their own knowledge.
Coady, C. A. J. 1992. Testimony: A Philosophical Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Goldberg, S. 2010. Relying on Others: An Essay in Epistemology. New York: Oxford University Press
Goldberg, S. 2005. ‘Testimonial Knowledge Through Unsafe Testimony’. Analysis, 65, pp. 302-311.
Goldberg, S. 2001. ‘Testimonially Based Knowledge From False Testimony’. The Philosophical Quarterly, 51, pp. 512-526.
Graham, P. J., 2000. ‘The Reliability of Testimony’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 61, pp. 695-709.
Lackey, J. 2008. Learning from Words – Testimony as a Source of Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.
Madden, M. 2020. ‘Kim Jong-un and the brutal North Korea rumour mill’. BBC News [online] <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-52511812> [Accessed 3rd May 2020].
Simion, M. 2017. ‘Epistemic Norms and ‘He Said/She Said’ Reporting’. Episteme, 14(4), pp. 413-422.
Viner, K. 2016. ‘How technology disrupted the truth’. The Guardian [online] <https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth> [Accessed 2nd April 2020].
 See Lackey 2008, Goldberg 2001, 2005 and Graham 2000.
 I will only be assessing responsibilities concerning factual reporting as opposed to opinion pieces. Examples being the case of ‘Piggate’ or more importantly, claims which have greater ethical consequences if found to be false (e.g various articles which direct hate towards minorities).
 See Mona Simion’s 2017 claim that balanced reporting or ‘he said/she said’ journalism violates general norms of informative speech acts and is only permissible if it is under urgent conditions.
Photo: Chernobyl, Obwód kijowski, Ukraina by Michal Lis on Unsplash