News, facts, and truth

News, facts, and truth

Posted on July 06, 2017

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as Word of the Year. The adjective refers to a situation in which people are more easily convinced by appeals to emotion and personal belief rather than by objective facts. Although the word has been around for a while, people started using it more often during the most recent, highly emotional US elections and Brexit debates in the UK.

The View From Taft

Benito L. Teehankee

Politicians have always been known to use propaganda and spin the news to sway the public mind. But the free press is there to inform the public about the truth, right? Not all news is created equal, however, and news reporters can and do have lapses. Recently, three veteran CNN news staff resigned after the network retracted a story on links between an ally of US President Trump and a Russian investment fund. CNN explained that the story “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards and has been retracted.” The network apologized, and the person alluded to accepted the apology.

Nowadays, people worry a lot about “fake news.” Many are questioning the credibility of traditional news media and point to alternative online news sources. Ironically, many such alternative sources have proven to be propaganda fronts.

For us to properly read news, we need to understand its nature. A news item contains a reporter’s claims about facts regarding a situation or state of affairs. There are two kinds of facts: brute facts and social facts. Brute facts are true in themselves no matter what we think about them. Examples are natural phenomena, like rain falling, and biological facts, like a person dying from a gunshot. The actions of people -- whether doing or saying things -- are also brute facts. A person exploding a bomb and a group of boxing judges saying that Horn has won over Pacquiao are brute facts.

(Before anyone gets upset about my last example, let me clarify. That the judges ruled in favor of Horn is a reported brute fact. Whether Horn factually hit Pacquiao more times than the other way around is a completely separate matter.)

Social facts are true only because of our consensus beliefs about them. They are social interpretations of brute facts. For example, a suspected drug dealer dying extrajudicially is referring to a possible social fact; it becomes a fact based only on the social interpretation of what “extrajudicial” means to people.

News reporters make claims about both brute and social facts. They claim that certain events (including what people say) have happened and/or were caused by certain things (brute facts) and that people believe such events and causes (social facts).

Business news is a complex combination of brute facts with layers of social facts on top. For example, a BusinessWorld online headline the other day announced: “Inflation expected to have eased further in June.” To understand the factual content of this news, we need to dissect the article. The news item quotes a text message from outgoing BSP Governor Amando M. Tetangco, Jr. that said: “The BSP forecast suggests that June inflation could settle within the 2.4-3.2% range.” The writer further reports that “that range compares to May’s actual 3.1%...”

We can look at the news item as a slice of cake. The headline is the top of the cake and the article reveals that it is BSP that “expected” inflation to go down in June. The bottom layer reports on the brute facts of a text message from Gov. Tetangco forecasting the range of inflation for June and the May inflation rate of 3.1%. In between the bottom and the top layers are reports on two social facts. The first is that a text message purportedly from the BSP governor is indeed from him. This is a social fact because it is true only insofar as reporters believe it to be. After all, a person can send text messages using another person’s phone.

The second reported social fact is that a range forecast of 2.4% to 3.2% for June is an expectation of lower inflation compared to May’s 3.1%. The range forecast actually includes 3.2%, so June inflation may actually turn out to be higher than May’s. However, the reporter takes the range to reasonably mean that June inflation will likely be lower than May’s.

How do we know that facts are being truthfully reported in the news? Although we assume that reporters have direct knowledge of such facts, we can’t really know this for sure. Ultimately, only the journalistic integrity of the reporter and the editorial integrity of the newspaper itself can bring news, facts, and the truth closer together to resist a post-truth world. We must demand such integrity.

Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is full professor of management and organization at De La Salle University.