We can’t handle the truth

In the past 12 months, the mainstream media has attempted to dissect the rise of populism, while perpetuating the narrative of an increasingly divided West. We find ourselves in a unique position of sifting through the rubble in an attempt to uncover what is True. It would seem there is little originality left in the quest for another expert to uncover the ‘post-truth’ mystique; not since Rene Descartes’ Meditations in 1641 has a Philosopher ardently sought to understand what we, as humans, can know for sure is ‘Truth’. So, what is the true reason for Brexit and the election of Trump as the 45th President of the United States? Perhaps for the first time in modern global politics we are privy to a remarkable amount of unconventional rhetoric from foreign leaders who are challenging the once recognised ‘Truths’ of the media and established diplomatic entities like NATO and the UN. On the contrary, the media continues to maintain its stance against the rise of populism, nationalism, and a departure from a century of economic, industrial and imperialistic aggression. These recent questions into authenticity serve as a reason to question Truth in these unsettled times.

In this modern, seemingly parallel world of ‘post-truth’ politics and ‘fake-news’ journalism, we need to go back to basics and remind ourselves of the fundamental responsibility of a journalist, which is to convey accurate information to the public, while implementing a knowledge, and adherence to, the journalistic ethics and standards. Why do we read the news? What does it give us?

In life, we intuitively exercise a filter, without even thinking, in which the source of any information is observed, validated, absorbed, accepted, questioned or disregarded. This is a vital defence mechanism. As this cycle evolves, sources of mistruths or gross exaggerations are quickly exposed and lose relevance as their subjects become cautious or disengage completely. This confidence is very difficult to win back.

We are taught in scientific journals, statistics, or any academic material to investigate the authors of an article, local laws, institutions involved, the sample size, research design to understand the biases and reflect on their conclusions through the prism of this characterisation.

We are being sold to, manipulated, and preyed upon as consumers, activists, and voters. Our chosen sources of media simply reinforce our opinion to make us feel ‘right,’ or worse, ‘angry’.

Why would one look at journalism, magazines, internet sites or the newspapers in a less scrutinous way? Logic would follow that greater rigour should be applied but often it is not. We must maintain a healthy, rational degree of skepticism when consuming all forms of information. It is prudent not to accept information at face value without considering the externalities of the material, particularly in the current climate of not only unconventional sources, but also the mainstream media. Society has grown to trust our news institutions and take the prose as bona fide, despite the constant inaccuracies, misrepresentations, slander, and politically motivated rhetoric, which is now commonplace within the dispersion of information to the public .

This extraordinary image was circulated during the US Presidential campaign comparing two issues of the Wall Street Journal, distributed on the same day. You will note that the Editor in Chief not only changed the main title in which it refers to Donald Trump’s attitudes towards the Great Wall of Mexico/USA, but also changed the advertisement for the pair of loafers. “Trump Talks Tough on Wall or Trump Softens His Tone” — quite a difference between these two positions. Coincidentally, the version running a hard line, alarmist Trump message depicts the loafers in a spirited, Latin American flavour whilst the softer Trump message frames the loafers in a more corporate, formal presentation — can you guess which market each was targeting? Looking through the eyes of the Editor in Chief, how does the news differ to the advertisement? Is it ethical to customise news for specific markets? These are troubling but necessary questions.

This clearly was not an accident, the Editor in Chief was appealing to his or her readership in order to sell more newspapers. So that leaves us, which of the Wall Street Journal Headings is correct? Is one of these editions ‘fake news’? And how can we measure the line at which journalism falls victim to profiteering?

We are being sold to, manipulated, and preyed upon as consumers, activists, and voters. Our chosen sources of media simply reinforce our opinion to make us feel ‘right,’ or worse, ‘angry’. We cannot underestimate our subconscious desires to be entertained by news media. It is reasonable to suggest that one does not always want to be challenged, but at times reads the news in order to relax. We must remain aware of this force in the context of information.

In truth, every source of information has biases attached, although some are more obvious and nefarious than others. We cannot be surprised that publications carry a somewhat rigid ideology or point of view, particularly from institutional publications. The Wall Street Journal example demonstrates how this can also apply to location and demographics; dependent upon where you live you may be told of different news. A large component of our Self is determined by the environment in which we have been nurtured and exposed; however, globalisation has connected many dots between distant Western environments, which we now accept, philosophically as Western culture.

In an open, democratic society we must ensure that we are an informed group and challenge public opinion, inequality and prejudice when necessary. That is our right but also our responsibility. It is therefore paramount to increase our scrutiny of media sources both in print, television, and online, as we do when a stranger in the street tells us an anecdote. Understanding the context and frame of information is crucial to understanding the subtext, which is often more revealing.

The Philosophy of Reality in the modern world presents many questions, and indeed many issues. What can we truly know about reality outside of the physical truths of nature, understood through mathematics, and our five senses. If one media outlet spins their version of reality, while another spins an opposing version of reality, then why is one right and the other wrong?

We will never know if our reality is the truth or someone else’s, we can only judge the quality and truthfulness of information we receive. In the face of rising populism, it is vital that we exercise empathy for different perspectives, and courage to seek truth. From truth comes virtue, wisdom, love, community. We must resist ignorance and asymmetric views to build a sense of participation and equality through elevated public discourse. We all have a part to play.

Written in conjunction with Nicholas Holt