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Truth is a slippery concept, and philosophers since Aristotle have battled over its meaning. The most intuitive understanding of truth is that of correspondence theory – the idea that “for a proposition to be true is for it to correspond to the facts” (Blackburn & Simmons 1999, 1).
As several observers have suggested, the cultural authority of journalism derives from its discursive status as truth. This status, in turn, is underpinned by the belief that it is possible to separate facts from values and the observer from the observed; that journalism can capture the world in its entirety. It provides media producers with a set of readymade justifications for their practices, but also grants them the privilege of being the masters of our collective truths.
Scholars in media studies and beyond have nudged at journalism’s commitment to a correspondence theory. In particular, proponents of a constructivist perspective question the idea of a direct denotative relationship between language and reality. Instead, such an approach starts from the presumption that all truths are contingent because reality is ultimately socially constructed. For James Carey, communication is “a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (1992, 23). Carey proposes that we actively make the world through the stories we tell about it.
In today’s mass societies, most of our store of knowledge about the world comes from mass media, rather than from personal experience. Media content therefore plays a key role in shaping our notion of truth – an insight which has been central to work ranging from Marxist critiques of hegemonic power relations in the media to the approaches of cultivation theory and framing.
Finally, communication scholarship has shown that consumers of media are often concerned with the truth of texts in a rather different sense: audiences judge whether content is authentic, or whether it is thought to be true to the essence of the object considered. Notions of truth as authenticity have been particularly influential in research on audience participation genres, including reality TV, broadcast talk, and user-generated content.
- Blackburn, S. & Simmons, K. (1999). Introduction. In S. Blackburn & K. Simmons (eds.), Truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1–28.
- Carey, J. (1992). Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.