The myth of knowing the truth

November 28, 2009|By CHRIS COPLEY

Thirty years ago, I read a book that changed my life.

"The Dosadi Experiment" by Frank Herbert (author of the "Dune" series) tells a fast-paced story of an agent sent to investigate and mitigate the effects of an experimental city, the densely populated home of two intelligent species set on a toxic planet.

The book presented actions in a deterministic way. That is, if the protagonists set events in motion in certain ways, they predicted certain outcomes. I was hugely impressed by the protagonists' insight and abilities to pull levers behind the scenes and produce specific results. It made for good fiction.

There's nothing wrong with clever storytelling, but, as a journalist, I can't rely on my own beliefs about what is true. I need reliable sources.


I'm trained to base news pieces on reliable, reputable sources. A reader calls to say that a concert has been scheduled to raise money for a child with a terminal disease. A business owner e-mails to say his firm is the first in the area to offer a certain highly effective health care product. A columnist submits an article to me claiming that taking more vitamins or consuming less sugar will have a specific impact on a person's health.

For all of these, I need confirmation. Let me talk to the child's doctor. Help me find objective research on your health care product. Give me a reputable source for your nutrition information.

Newspapers and other news sources base stories on reliable, reputable information. Police reports, legal documents, double-blind studies, courthouse records -- these are reliable sources of information.

People can be reliable sources of information, too, but we need to be aware of and work with their biases.

In feature stories, we try to give a variety of perspectives on the topic at hand. After all, sometimes a topic has more than one valid point of view. What's the best way to dress for a holiday party? What's the best way to discipline a child? What's the best chili recipe? Are video games great entertainment or a distraction from real life? Sometimes, there is no single correct answer, just a variety of viewpoints.

So we talk to a variety of people and report their views.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of journalism is a willingness to be wrong. After all, reporters have their biases, too -- people they like, sources they trust, allegations they believe false (or true), political viewpoints that seem correct (or not).

A reporter must be willing to review evidence and find facts on which to base a story. It's tough, when you believe a certain viewpoint to be correct, to allow contrary viewpoints. It's sometimes difficult, sometimes embarrassing to admit you were wrong.

But that's what I like about journalism. A good reporter keeps learning, keeps seeking reliable sources of information, continues to keep an open mind. It's part of the job.

Certitude is OK, but it can be like wearing blinders. An open mind leads to a wider, more complete view.

Chris Copley is Lifestyle editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-791-6177 or by e-mail at

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