The late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham referred to journalism as a “first rough draft of history (Peters & Broersma, 2017).” This simple statement defines the complex, dynamic, and often multi-faceted relationship between media and the public interest. Media is seen as a watchdog, and a record of everything about mankind and, therefore, must remain objective and true to this purpose. However, it is also incontrovertible that the complex relationship has been marked and marred with ugly and unfortunate events of twisted reports and records. Commonly referred to as propaganda or media manipulation, these erroneous reports have gone on to disrupt and influence the truth and public records by masquerading as information that is ostensibly promoting human interest, whereas they promote a hidden agenda. Therefore, the long history of media and journalism being significant players in human and social issues has also become compromised because the media has been permeated by other forces which take advantage of the permeable boundaries that define the subjectivity of almost every social issue.
This paper will create an overview of the history of journalism, broadcasting, and media in general and how manipulation has found its way into contemporary media. It will explore various issues which intersect with media, creating ambiguity on what, when, and why report facts or certain sections of facts, thus providing a distinction between truth and truthfulness. Additionally, it will describe circumstances where government and media organizations can limit their powers and considerations, which influence personal journalistic points of view, debating whether these two complex issues should always be analyzed from various perceptions.
- When did journalism become the most critical factor in social issues
- What circumstances dictate when reporters agree or disagree on facts or report from a certain perception?
- What circumstances make it acceptable (or not) for government and media houses to impose limits on the freedom of speech?
- Why are truth and truthfulness two very different concepts, and what should be the media’s position in this debate?
- What situations make it normal or abnormal for the media to take a certain point of view?
The Historical Overview of Journalism
Journalism is the gathering, organizing, and distributing of news – including stories and commentary – through a wide variety of print and non-print media outlets. It is reported that the first reports of journalism can be traced to Rome in 59 B.C. when the Acta Diurna began circulation. The daily publication was hung strategically across the city for all who could read to understand the relevant contemporary news. The Tang Dynasty distributed a court report in the 7th to the 10th century to keep people updated on various issues. These were the earliest traces of journalism worldwide and the first forays into reporting daily news.
Contemporary journalism, however, can be traced to the exploits of the seventeenth century, when print media began to take shape and grow in scope. The 1609 German publication was the first regular news publication. It was swiftly followed by Weekly News in 1622 – the first English publication. The first daily newspaper was the Daily Courant in the eighteenth century and sought to highlight various issues in society then, similar to today’s papers, albeit with smaller scale authority (Pickard, 2019). The present-day media has grown in stature, authority, and expanse, with numerous publications enjoying various forms of journalistic approaches, from daily news to satirical commentaries to expert analyses of almost every topic globally. The late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham’s belief that journalism had the responsibility to be the “first rough draft of history” has never been truer (Peters & Broersma, 2017). However, the now infamous phrase, first coined in 1905 by an unnamed newspaper, can show what the belief in newspapers and broadcasting has been for the whole time. It is supposed to present raw and uncut news to the public without any interruption.
The television broadcast has a much more recent history, having grown with the twentieth-century invention of visual-audio technologies. Its unprecedented growth has coincided with the unprecedented development in human history, which has seen technology grow unbounded. Presently, television shrunk in size from the older models, which took up the sizes of a room, and can now be fitted to the size of a human palm. However, it is the growth of technology in social media and smartphone technology that has completely revolutionized broadcast media. It has become, according to Graham’s words, ‘the first rough draft of history’ because everyone everywhere can see the live action. Radios and television have developed their stories from the early standard features of broadcasts that featured unscripted interviews and effective crosscuts of lengthier interviews.
Nevertheless, within journalism’s first calling of reporting every bit of history, lies are the single biggest threat, manipulation. It is a concept that continues to grow in scope and cunning ability every day. It has also evolved from the early direct government bans to present-day covert and overt media manipulation techniques (Pickard, 2019). Even Phil Graham was aware of this when he said the now-infamous words. “So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand (Peters & Broersma, 2017).” And because of the high esteem and regard that media is held in today, media manipulation and various other propaganda tool have become much more conspicuous. Since ancient times, governments and other vested interests have shown a willingness to support their causes and beliefs through mass media. It is said the earliest versions of mass media were marred with strict censorship and discontinuations whenever they spoke on matters the government felt were beyond them. These early developments have only grown subtler yet more effective in contemporary society.
Media manipulation has meant that journalism faces incredible threats to provide a true account of events and the world to the public. Journalists face incredible odds in their commitment to sort out what is happening worldwide and report it in a timely fashion. As journalism is public information, meaning gathering, confirming, synthesizing, and reporting evidence and facts related to current events (including trends, issues, and people within the public sphere and intended for public dissemination), it is critical it remains aware of these various forces of manipulation (Russell, 2011). It has to show a response to the devious ways which all aim at distorting these facts and inserting their own copies of history. Overt and covert propaganda should be unmasked without fail, masquerading as the true account of events while offering biased evidence and facts (including fabrications) to support their causes (Russell, 2011). Consequently, “Governments are the most frequent culprits when it comes to exerting pressure on the press.” It is an indisputable truth that highlights the predatory behavior of most governments and their constant belief in distorting truths to suit their agenda. Therefore, it is critical for journalism to develop itself within this complex and intertwined environment while still maintaining its objectivity and truthful nature to the public interests.
Reporters’ Perception: When to Agree and Disagree with Facts
News reporting intersects and interlinks with numerous factors within a complex web of layers marked with varying importance and implications. Journalists have a duty to report these issues to the public without any complications. As john miller says and is quoted by Russell (2006) in his book Morals and the media: Ethics in Canadian journalism, “as citizens, we give up part of our privacy in order to participate in a public dialogue that can enrich our community. In return, we expect e press to respect our sacrifice ahead of its commercial gain (Russell, 2011).” This statement sums up the debate and contention that has always brewed among newsmakers and news consumers. Their supreme accountability and responsibility should surely be on the consumers of their content and not themselves (Gunatilleke, 2021). Their true loyalty should lie with the consumers without failure at any instance. They should desist from distorting or unbalancing the scales to hide the truth from the public at all costs.
However, it is not straightforward as it seems in most instances. The issue of news coverage involves weighing the benefits and implications of such news on the public. It is one of the great journalistic pillars that has markedly determined what history is preserved and how it is reserved. It is unfortunate pilar because most of the selfish and powerful have managed to utilize this power and privilege to twist facts within their power to suit their agenda. It has become the start of the contention on whether news reporters should agree or disagree with facts to suit certain agendas (Pickard, 2019). The answer is very simple; they should never. Newsmakers and news reporters should always remain objective in their reporting. The distorting of public discourse to provide false facts and information masquerading as the truth to the public is all wrong. And mostly, this twisting of facts occurs whenever some people or sections are looking to promote a selfish personal and hidden agenda. Therefore, these various stakeholders have the duty to remain objective at all times.
The belief is built around the ability of media to influence and affect major social powers and, inherently, society’s future. Twisting facts to suit a certain narrative might change society irrevocably and cause a very different discourse. For instance, world journalism’s most blatant twisting of facts occurred after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Various news media joined the media frenzy, reporting numerous masked truths (Calabrese, 2005). The gung-ho approach became the biggest influence in labeling middle easterners and Muslims in general to have terrorist motives (Calabrese, 2005). It is an attitude that has persisted two decades later, highlighting the power of media and, consequently, the implications of news reporters disagreeing with facts. Despite the facts being present (or rather lack of enough evidence at the time), news reporters stuck with the narrative that the Iraqi government was responsible (Calabrese, 2005). It is an embodiment of why journalists should only stick with facts. The government and various other vested authorities were able to manipulate the gullible newsrooms to champion an inaccurate course (Peters & Broersma, 2017). There are no instances where it is warranted for news reporters are supposed to disagree with facts to promote a certain discourse. If this happened, it means they have failed in their primary purpose, which is reporting an accurate account of world history firsthand.
The Limits of Freedom of Speech: Is Its Indisputability Just a Fallacy?
The importance and significance of freedom of speech mean it is an absolute right. In the liberal society of the contemporary world, it is a necessity that is only controversial when high value arises. The issue of speech encapsulates many different activities in the world and in the media world. Therefore, it is important to ensure these activities roll out unhinged in most instances. In Canada, the second section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom of speech as one of society’s central and fundamental freedoms (Gunatilleke, 2021). Similarly, in the United States, it is guaranteed in the First Amendment. It means that news reporters are protected to provide these accurate versions of events without running the risk of being censored by certain powers. It is a central theme in democracy and has been used to highlight the advancements of democracies. These freedoms, however, should be checked at certain points. These permeable lines of when freedom of speech should be curtailed have historically been exploited by various sections of governments and powerful individuals within the media industry in the past (Gunatilleke, 2021). Despite these threats of exploiting these gaps, limiting freedom of expression is critical to maintaining society’s sanity and future.
There are numerous areas where news reporting and journalism intersect with fragile topics; thus, limits can be curtailed by the government or the media. These instances mean that such entities have weighed the value of free speech and the implications of certain news and decided otherwise. According to David Van Mill in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, every society has limits on the freedoms that individuals and newsrooms can enjoy. Therefore, each society will have its limits on free speech (Gunatilleke, 2021). For instance, the press report by McCleneghan highlights the gory imagery and depictions of the Vietnam war. It begs the question, should such issues be normalized as news despite their implications for society? It is the same as when the government decides to censor certain topics, such as national security matters or child-sensitive topics (McCleneghan, 2002). These examples are just a small sample of the limits and boundaries of freedom of speech.
Truth and Truthfulness
According to most people, there is no distinction between these two words, and all describe the same thing. However, the two words describe two very different issues and have different significances to the media houses. According to the English dictionary, truth is the accuracy and absolute correctness of the facts or the absolute reality of something or someone. On the other hand, truthfulness means the active discourse of making the truth known to all without fail. Therefore, in today’s hyper-connected world, these two issues are critical for the media. Numerous authors have explored the issue in the past, the most prominent being Jorgen Bruhn et al., in their article Truthfulness and Truth Claims as Trans-Medial Phenomena. The authors postulate that information often travels more rapidly than ‘facts’ and ‘the truth (Bruhn et al., 2021).’ However, it is a very slippery slope that intersects with the freedom of speech in more than one instance. Therefore, it is critical that media houses, on top of reporting and ensuring the truth reaches the public limelight reaches the world, should participate actively in achieving such discourses.
It is an indisputable fact and the central reasoning behind truth and truthfulness concepts within the slippery twenty-first-century hyper-connected media. In his article Truth and Lies in Mass Media, Ray Benaroch explores the thin line between truth and truthfulness. He gives a superb example of a June 15, 2017 headline in the New York Post, “Breatharian couple survives on the universe’s energy instead of food (Benaroch, 2019).” This misleading headline was picked by numerous other publications and appeared in other papers in the subsequent days of that headline. This misleading headline can be contrasted with The Independent, which read, “couple claim they live a food-free lifestyle and haven’t felt hungry since 2008 (Benaroch, 2019).” The second, more truthful headline shows the skepticism that should accompany such a headline because, from the present scientific knowledge, it is impossible to survive 12 years without a meal (Benaroch, 2019). However, in contrast, many newspapers and internet sites published the story without fact-checking for the clicks. It showed the danger of failing to find the truth before publishing anything which has been central to the contemporary media. First, the New York Post was incorrect in its assertion, and the subsequent news publications failed to seek truthfulness in their stories.
Is Media Bias or a Certain Point of View Necessitated?
In most of the media world, media should be objective and truthful in all instances. Media and newsrooms ought to ensure that public and truthful discourse takes precedence in every story. It is a power bestowed on them by virtue of being the ‘first accurate draft or record of human history.’ The media should never take sides to advance personal vendettas to progress individual interests (Peters & Broersma, 2017). For instance, most of the American media has chosen a position in the Iraqi war and subsequent terrorist war campaigns across various middle east countries. They all hoped to the Saddam’s alleged mass weapons story and alleged terror links bandwagon without understanding the facts of the matter (Calabrese, 2005). They all had a predetermined stance even before the story developed at every instance. It is a reality that contrasts heavily with the fundamentals of media houses. For instance, High Miles has documented how Al Jazeera has remained objective during the war and even given the alleged terrorists a voice (Seib, 2005). In his article on how Al Jazeera is challenging the west, the author highlights the need for media houses to remain objective and without a predetermined side in every story.
Media bias has been tied to media manipulation due to numerous factors. For instance, the government has been one of the biggest influences and culprits in distorting and censoring facts to suit its agenda. The power they wield as the supreme power in each respective country leaves many media houses at their mercy. Through misinformation and intimidation, specific laws to muzzle the freedom and power of the press, and financial constraints to ensure media lacks freedom and independence, governments are a significant stumbling block and influencer of what side media are on in many issues (Russell, 2011). For instance, Russell claims that the government’s ultimate power in Canada can be seen in the specific rules regarding the reporting of uranium news when the government decided to raise the price of uranium (Russell, 2011). The press and media houses reporting the story had to choose between being within the government’s claws or against it and risk its ire. It is usually a tricky position for anyone to be against the government, and media houses are no exception. Nevertheless, they should be objective and remain truthful to their most critical shareholders, the public.
Therefore, there is no single time when news reporters and makers are permitted or allowed to take sides in issues. They should remain objective at all times. Whenever they take sides, one side suffers, and it is usually not the side that is the truth. The powerful and privileged are usually the beneficiaries, while the victims languish on the sidelines, wondering what their plight will turn out to be in the end (Peters & Broersma, 2017). It is even more important in the present world where many people claim to never read newspapers but rather skim across them looking for the most suitable and juicy ones to read. According to a study in 2014, almost two-thirds of American only skim across newspaper headlines and never bother to read the contents (Benaroch, 2019). It is a risky behavior, meaning many might be gullible to clickbait stories or inaccurate records depicted in these publications. Therefore, the responsibility to present a truthful account of the story falls on the media. This means that news reporters and makers cannot take sides at any instance. They should be truthful in all their reporting, which means their audience will pick these as the accurate records, which is wrong in the end.
The power and responsibility of media and journalism as the “first rough draft of history” is immense. It is a fact that has become even more crucial in the contemporary hyper-connected world, where information moves much faster than the “truth” and “facts.” History has shown how media remains a fundamental part of the plight of communities, societies, and nations, with its ability to embody the freedom of speech. Therefore, these media houses have to present the undistorted version of events. The constant manipulation and control by powerful entities such as the government and the media house themselves should not derail them from bringing the truth to the fore. Therefore, the various contentions regarding their position within various societal issues should be non-existent. Despite the ambiguity and permeability of most issues, the media always remain objective and truthful despite its implications. Because whenever the media is denied its freedom of speech, it means the start of the collapse of democracy whereby freedom of speech is a fundamental freedom in democracies. In the end, it should remain the ‘first rough draft of history as envisioned from the start.
Benaroch, R. (2019). Truth and lies in the mass media. Praeger.
Bruhn, J., Salmose, N., Schirrmacher, B., & Tornborg, E. (2021). Truthfulness and truth claims as transmedial phenomena. In Intermedial Studies (pp. 225-254). Routledge.
Calabrese, A. (2005). Casus Belli: US media and the justification of the Iraq War. Television & New Media, 6(2), 153-175.
Gunatilleke, G. (2021). Justifying limitations on the freedom of expression. Human Rights Review, 22(1), 91-108.
McCleneghan, J. S. (2002). ‘Reality violence’on TV news: it began with Vietnam. The social science journal, 39(4), 593-598.
Peters, C., & Broersma, M. (2017). Rethinking journalism again. Society role and public relevance in a digital age.(C. Peters & M. Broesrsma, Eds.). Abingdon: Routledge.
Pickard, V. (2019). Democracy without journalism?: Confronting the misinformation society. Oxford University Press.
Russell, N. (2011). Morals and the media: Ethics in Canadian journalism. UBC press.
Seib, P. (2005). Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West. Parameters, 35(3), 151.