On Press Critique and Journalism’s Claim to Truth

"To go beyond the unbearable limitations of journalism and understand how it works, we should not approach journalism as a descriptive discourse but on the contrary as a performative discourse designed to persuade readers that what it describes is real, distinguishes it from propaganda. And journalism does succeed at making people believe it is reporting the truth. This is why the public is so shocked if news turns out to be untrue."
Marcel Broersma
International Communication Gazette. February 2010 vol. 72 no. 1 21-33

To defend journalism’s special position in society and confirm the identity of the professional group, the journalist responsible for the hoax is nailed to the cross by his fellow professionals, regardless of whether he did it on purpose or just fell for it. He is exposed as a fraud or simply as incompetent, and banned from the profession. There are examples throughout history and all across the globe. The message to the public is: the system works fine, and if the routines and conventions had been followed properly this never would have happened. This limits the damage to journalism as a whole.

By successfully doing so, journalism transforms an interpretation into truth – which is still important because– into a reality the public can act upon.

We should keep in mind that journalism does not derive its performative power from its contents (the facts), but merely from its forms and style that mask the awkward reality.

News consumers tend to believe the contents that come with professional routines and conventions, justifying and masking the subjective interpretation and news selection of the individual journalist.


Press critics like Davies and Luyendijk tend to argue that the image journalism presents of social reality is manipulated and distorted. They make a big deal out of it, but actually it is only logical. The problem is that the critics essentially view journalism as a discourse that should be capable of accurately describing or mirroring social reality. It’s not! It is not useful to think of news as either distorting or reflecting reality, because “realities” are made and news is part of the system that makes them

Linguistic representations have the power to simultaneously describe and produce phenomena. They are self-fulfilling prophecies: News is true because the journalist says it to be so.

Of course, this is not want to imply that the material social world is of no importance at all; but if the claims of one article are refuted by another one that claims to have new sources or facts, the new claims are also judged by their persuasive force. Power of persuasion (that its interpretation of the social world is legitimate)

If we acknowledge that journalism is a performative discourse it is impossible to be transparent about its limitations and its inability to discover the truth and introduce structural ambiguity in news writing as is suggested by press critics.

And that the objectivity norm is a true account of reality can be presented if journalists depersonalize and rationalize their working methods.

Paradox of Journalism: The Claim to Tell the Truth

However, this paradox of journalism, this claim to tell the truth (and the CLING) knowing it is actually impossible, seems to be an essential part of it. In the reigning Anglo-American news paradigm, transparency in global journalism nowadays, i.e. abandoning the objectivity norm and confessing that journalism is unable to accurately represent reality, would undermine its authority. Journalism’s claim to truth and the objectivity norm underlying this claim are essential to a journalism that claims to serve the public interest.

The objectivity norm is a strong instrument for maintaining internal group identity, establishing autonomy towards external groups in society like politics or business and appealing to a mass public

In a sense, journalism is like magic. The magician knows he will not actually saw the woman in two. The audience knows he won’t. But they both hate the smart ass who gets up in the middle of the show and breaks the illusion by shouting, ‘It’s just a trick!’ And then starts to explain how it works: They are not really her feet, they are just fake shoes, the girl curls up so he saws through empty space… So we if we accept this unattainability, the real power of journalism lies then in the power to persuade.

If we accept this notion, the next question is: What makes a journalistic article convincing? Broersma analyzes what determines the persuasive power that makes us believe a representation of reality is indeed true. He returns to Luyendijk’s argument and discuss the implications of his plea for transparency and structural ambiguity in journalism.

Transparency and Structural Ambiguity

The call for transparency about journalism methods and the ideological positions of newspapers, the introduction of structural ambiguity into journalism by telling readers what journalists do not know, and the need for educating the public about media logic are not new ingredients in press critique. They have always been there. Problematic. Assumes discursive norms.

"Do people want to hear about structural ambiguity?"

People pay for the truth. They expect journalists to tell them ‘how it really is’ and make sense of a complicated and confusing social reality, and they like to read about journalism, its failures and the problems facing reporters in their day-to-day jobs as illustrated by the sales figures of Joris Luyendijk’s and Davies’s books.

But that does not necessarily mean either that readers want to be bothered with the difficulties of producing news articles themselves. People like to read about film stars and Hollywood, but when they are watching a nice movie at home they do not want to see a pop-up on their TV screen showing the director explaining – in actual time – how the film was made. They do not want the illusion to be broken. Would it strengthen or only subvert its authority and existence?

If we acknowledge that journalism is a performative discourse deriving its authority from its power to persuade people to believe it is telling the truth about the social world and from the textual forms it uses, it is impossible to be transparent about its limitations and its inability to discover the truth.

In this line of thinking, journalism no longer naturalizes reality by implying that the words it uses correspond to the events they refer to, as in the objectivity doctrine (the current Anglo-American paradigm of objective journalism). Instead it questions the abilities of journalism’s procedures of representation.

However, even though current journalism aims to persuade readers within a framework of routines and conventions that link up with the objectivity norm, it might also be possible to return to a more subjective paradigm. Then journalism would not claim to present an objectified but a mediated truth.

Journalists can withdraw from the regimen of objectivity and its formal and stylistic conventions, and can decide not to take the trouble to fit their stories into their audiences’ mental framework.

The rise and fall of journalism movements aiming to break away from it show that it is not that easy. Civic journalism, focused on solving social problems rather than finding the truth, does not meet with much response in the profession. The New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, which openly criticized professional conventions and aimed for a deeper truth by awarding the author’s actions, ideas and experiences a central position in his or her articles, has not succeeded in changing journalism habits. Neither has narrative journalism or its most subjective form, personal journalism, which recounts the personal experiences of journalists.

These movements are now all embedded in objective journalism. A really paradigmatic shift would be a return to a reflective or partisan model of journalism, expressing its subjectivity and by doing so, making explicit the principles of its procedures of representation. This would mean aiming for smaller audiences bound together by specific interests or ideologies and a journalism that derives its performative power from the ideological correspondence between a medium and its audience. But that is not what most press critics advocate.

The general public has been quick to accept Luyendijk’s image of news as a distorted and biased interpretation of reality and the reporter as an unreliable messenger, as if deep inside it already knows this inconvenient truth and was just waiting for a professional to confirm it with some authority. More than a quarter of a million copies of Luyendijk’s book have been sold, it is to be translated into several languages and in the Netherlands it has been a definite factor in the public debate on journalism.

This media reality has performative power. It determines what people think about and how they act, and it shapes the public debate.

Luyendij argues that if journalism abandoned its claim to the truth, we would face a paradigm shift. It would be the end of the current Anglo-American paradigm of objective journalism.

Questions to consider

1. Do you buy into the postmodern theory that language and meaning are wholly relative, that there is no truth?

2. Do you agree with our conceptualization of journalistic detachment in its two branches?

3. We argued that a process of verification is enough in a postmodern reality. Do you agree?

4. Can journalists work to divorce themselves from their constructed reality to communicate a “truth”? If yes, how?

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