Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Journalists and Truth

Tom Goldstein’s Journalism and Truth: Strange Bedfellows (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007) is an examination of “how journalists think about the idea of truth and how close they come to attaining it” (p. 1). Since newspapers are generally thought of as significant historical sources and many archives have responsibility for them, this is a book archivists will find interesting. Goldstein, a dean of a journalism school, has written this book because of challenges to professional journalism by the Internet and because of troublesome cases about the misuse of information by journalists, suggesting that it is especially difficult for journalists to explain how they sort through evidence in order to compose a news story.

Goldstein describes how journalists say they lack the time for fact-checking, while arguing that it is essential for them, at least in certain kinds of stories, to be able to verify their information. He notes that “compared to practitioners of the traditional disciplines, journalists do not appear very systematic in the way they gather information. They do not often use the tools of social scientists. Stories are not usually enriched with data to inform the discussion. Social phenomena are not methodically examined” (p. 35). Still, Goldstein argues that, “fact-checking is not a luxury, but a necessity, particularly for the many stories in the daily press that are not breaking news, but prepared over a period of days or weeks – certainly sufficient time for a fact-checker to review them” (p. 137). In this regard Goldstein suggests that journalists could learn much from how historians work; surprisingly, he cites some standard historical methods texts while ignoring the controversies that have waged among the ranks of historians themselves about the veracity of their sources and abuses such as plagiarism, sloppy citations and transcriptions, and even the fabrication of documentary sources.

One of the best aspects of this book is its juxtaposition of newspapers and online news sources. Goldstein contends that, “although journalists continue to see their jobs as collecting and verifying information as best they can before disseminating it, the Internet may increasingly accommodate a public demand for unverified information” (pp. 12-13). He drives this point home by contrasting blogging with journalistic reporting: “For bloggers, truth is created collectively, not through a hierarchy of fact seekers and verifiers. Information is not necessarily vetted before it is disseminated; instead, it is distributed via multiple and usually undifferentiated views. This is a different kind of truth than the truth that journalists have become accustomed to, arrived at by different means. Truth, in the bloggers’ view, emerges from the discourse” (p. 13). These are interesting observations, even if at times Goldstein seems to get a little curmudgeonly about the World Wide Web and its impact.

Those concerned about the archival enterprise will find Goldstein’s analysis of Janet Malcolm’s journalistic work especially compelling. Malcolm is well known among archivists for her articles and subsequent book about the Sigmund Freud papers at the Library of Congress. However, as Goldstein reflects, Malcolm’s work, while engaging and provocative, often seems to push the barriers of reliable journalism investigation: “Malcolm’s oracular pronouncements on truth cancel, overlap, and contradict one another. Her writing, as remarkable as it is, cracks into splinters under close inspection, showing the futility of trying to formulate a general scheme when journalism and truth fit easily together” (p. 160). Goldstein is careful to point out that he is a friend of one of Malcolm’s targets, but it is certainly the case that Goldstein selects Malcolm as a subject because the latter has written extensively and revealingly about journalistic practice and been the subject of litigation herself over the use of her sources.