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Institutional Values and the Value of Truth-Seeking Institutions

The press, higher education, and libraries - we don't always do it right, but a commitment to seeking the truth matters.

January 12, 2017
 
 

When I have students read the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics the discussion always starts with giggles and snorts. As if. Come on. Students can be enormously cynical about the news even if they rarely pick up a newspaper or tune into a broadcast. They don’t need to. They hear about things. They see a clip. They look it up if they’re interested. They decide. News organizations? Eyeroll.

I was pretty cynical myself when I was their age, but I didn’t doubt the importance of the press as an institution. Even if the press fails often, massively, disastrously, we need it. We need people employed full-time to seek the truth and report it on behalf of the public. We need to defend the press while also demanding that they do their best to live up to these ethical standards. We need to call out mistakes, but still stand up for the value of independent public-interest reporting.

That thing that happened recently was not a press conference. It was a smaller version of a Trump rally, where the Bully-in-Chief pronounces his disdain for the press and his supporters cheer. It’s not normal for a press conference to have a cheering section. It’s not normal for the most powerful person in the country to declare entire news organizations “garbage” and “fake,” making it clear he will punish others that displeases him with all his might.

The press will have to decide how to report on a political world where nothing is normal. You can’t simply bring in dueling pundits or quote two opponents to present “both sides” and call it a day. If you believe your job is to “seek the truth and report it” you have to believe there is such a thing as truth, and that’s taking a side right there. When powerful people encourage wholesale distrust of institutions that exist to pursue the truth, we’re in trouble.

Librarians and academics are in the same predicament - particularly academics. This week bills were introduced in the legislatures of Iowa and Missouri to abolish tenure in public higher education. It’s easy to argue tenure has failed because tenured professors haven’t prevented the shameful abuse of adjunct labor, but removing tenure removes an institution that protects free inquiry and that’s dangerous. It’s part of a concerted effort to paint higher education, which has served this country pretty well over the past century, as untrustworthy, elitist, biased, and worthless. Science, scholarship, and the very idea that truth is something you seek, not something you choose, is at stake because those things are bound up in this threatened institution.

Librarians . . . well, we’re not generally seen as powerful enough to be a threat. Maybe that’s our ace in the hole. It’s time for us to think deeply about our ethical commitments and act on them with integrity, courage, and solidarity. We need to stand up for institutions that, like ours, support seeking the truth for the public good, setting aside how often they have botched it in the past. We need to apply our values to a world where traditions developed over years for seeking truth – the means by which we arrive at scientific consensus, for example – are cast aside in favor of nitpicking, rumor-mongering, and self-segregation.

Back in November reporter Christiane Amanpour said of election reporting:

much of the media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality, and crucially, truth.

We cannot continue the old paradigm--let's say like over global warming, where 99.9 percent of the empirical scientific evidence is given equal play with the tiny minority of deniers.

I learned long ago, covering the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, never to equate victim with aggressor, never to create a false moral or factual equivalence, because then you are an accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences.

I believe in being truthful, not neutral.

Previously here, I’ve run into some definitional issues when it comes to libraries and neutrality, so I’ll try to be as clear as I can about what I mean: approaching a question with an open mind, being willing to let evidence (not raw opinion, emotion, or group affinity) influence what you think, being committed to a method for truth-seeking that minimizes bias and harm, and doing this for the public good, not out of self-interest is perhaps what we once considered “neutrality.” Unfortunately that process has itself been declared elitist and biased and instead we’re asked to give equal weight to beliefs that are not true.

We shouldn’t do that, and we should support truth-seeking institutions even if they often fail to live up to their own ethical standards because their values matter and they are under assault.

 

 

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