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Jun 8th 2016

Second place: Where Is the Line Between Truth and Fiction

Robert Metcalfe, United Kingdom

Second place in EssayMama Spring Essay Writing Contest 2016

"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." - Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey around the World.

Mark Twain answered the question: the thin line between truth and fiction is sense. Contrary to the expectations, fiction makes more sense, because it has a particular structure and order. In reality, the situations and occurrences don't make much sense. Every individual behaves in a way that's nearly impossible to understand. When the individualities of billions of people interact between each other in endless ways, reality is something the human mind cannot understand. That's the reason why journalists are trying to get a certain degree of fiction in their stories; they would make no sense without the structure and order they impose. The line between truth and fiction is always blurry, because everyone understands the truth from an individual point of view. More often than not, that point of view is distorted by prejudices, political and moral views, etiquette, and the aim to impress other people, just like in Kurosawa's Rashômon.

Truth is closely related to freedom of speech, which is the main factor that distorts the line between fact and fiction. Although freedom of speech means no censorship or restriction, in reality that concept is never unlimited. In modern democracies, the freedom of the press is inextricably bound up with moral responsibility that media workers should withstand. The right to freedom of speech is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes this freedom as "right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of the frontiers." This means that everyone has the right to know the truth, but journalists also have the right to hold opinions. The problem is in the fact that their opinions are often interfered affected by political views, which distorts the truth in the favor of storytelling.

Storytelling, as an important aspect of journalism, is another important factor that blurs the line between truth and fiction. Journalists often neglect their most important purpose (asking questions) for the sake of developing a story that will be easily processed by the mass audience. The media are in a privileged position to ask questions, receive correct information, and serve it to the public. Questions are the guiding point not only in interviews, but also in any article or story. Journalists have a responsibility to discover the truth by asking questions and insisting on factual answers. They need to check the answers to verify the information, register incorrect answers and inform about any lack of response.

For the purpose of informing the public, media should act in accordance with the code of ethics of journalism. The basic criteria of moral action should be human dignity and respect for the people they inform. In its ideal, journalistic work is based on the following ethical principles: truth, impartiality, freedom of speech, and liability. Journalists have a role to transmit information, ideas, and opinions, but they are also entitled to comment. Freedom of speech is the thin line between truth and fiction, since it enables journalists to distort the information and present it from their own point of view.

In reality, the idealistic image of journalism is distorted, especially in third-world countries. Perhaps the mass media themselves are not bad, but they become a powerful tool for violation of moral and ethical norms when they get into the wrong hands. In democratic societies, media are meant to be a tool for increasing the free flow of truthful information. With the use of modern technology, they enable the citizens to receive correct information, they warn of corruption and abuse of power, and they allow the citizens to bring their own conclusions. Unfortunately, we witness the violation of journalistic standards every day. The media are spreading untruthful information with the purpose to boost or diminish the reputation of public figures, companies, products, and services. We often come across news of dubious origin, obvious slander, or deliberate reproach. Such presentation of information may be considered truthful from the journalist's point of view, but it does not paint the whole picture for the public.

Ralph B. Potter, Jr., professor of social ethics emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, developed a concept that may guide journalists to ethical decision. The so-called Potter Box is consisted of four decision-making steps. The first stage is understanding the facts. Then, the journalist should underline the important points and identify the differences in perspective. The third step is application of ethical philosophies, which enable the decision-maker to analyze the situation. Finally, the fourth step is loyalty. Journalists should always remain loyal to the public. Unfortunately, the line between truth and fiction often gets blurred by their political sympathies.

Journalistic storytelling is unethical if it's sensationalist. That's an extreme that all media need to avoid for the sake of presenting truthful information. However, storytelling is unprofessional when it's trite, because it doesn't attract attention from the readers. There has to be a balance between these two points, but journalists must identify the fine line that's not to be crossed: the information they publish must not impair the consumers' ability to make their own conclusions.

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