Invite media users to define “the best obtainable version of the truth”

Invite media users to define “the best obtainable version of the truth”

By Aslak Gottlieb, a Journalistic Lecturer at Southern University of Denmark, Media Research and Innovation Centre.

In this piece Aslak Gottlieb explains how newsrooms can engage their users by leaving them some decisive editorial authority.

Good journalism is about “the best obtainable version of the truth”. The quote is epic to journalists all over the world. Legendary Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernstein introduced the punch line to describe their reporting on Watergate.

Still at festive occasions, the two superheroes of news reporting flash their simplified conceptualization of what they define as both their purpose and methodology. And to us fans, they still seem to iconize what journalism at its core is about: To reveal for the public the best obtainable version of the truth. Keep it simple, stupid!

And so, this blog post needs no further elaboration and could be condensed into a smug Tweet. Well, rather not. It would not be fair, if the news industry claimed that the inherent complexity of journalism could be reduced in one single motto. If workstreams in a newsroom were only that simple, we might as well let AI take over the whole business. No, the real world is more nuanced.

In 2017 at a White House Correspondent Dinner in Washington, Bernstein explained: “The best obtainable version of the truth is about context and nuance. Even more than it’s about simple, existential facts … Shortly after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Bob and I were asked a long question about our reporting. We answered with a short phrase that we’ve used many times since to describe our reporting on Watergate and its purpose and methodology. We called it the best obtainable version of the truth. It’s a simple concept for something very difficult to get right because of the enormous amount of effort, thinking, persistence, pushback, removal of ideological baggage and the sheer luck that is required, not to mention some unnatural humility”.

Good reporting really is that complex. Although AI being the perfect tool to reduce complexity and even improve quality of editorial procedures, some components in reporting rely on human values. Bernstein mentions as good examples “the pushback” and “the unnatural humility” as superpowers for a good journalist to have. In the algorithm of truth, real persons whose thinking is based on human values should always be among the data variables.

Since Watergate the media and information landscape has changed dramatically. The journalist’s news gatekeeper monopoly is broken. And we as media users have changed our attitudes and expectations of the news stories we consume. Technological development of news distribution channels the last 50 years has multiplied and diversified our information diet to an extent that we are never satisfied and keep our minds open for another perspective, than the one of that journalist’s news piece we just read. The best obtainable version of the truth is still the ideal for a news literate media user, but with our direct access to various sources of information, we have developed an urge to become co-definers of what is the best obtainable version of the truth.

NewsArcade is an authoring tool that allows journalists to produce stories with multiple outcomes based on editorial choice of sources, photos and headlines made by the user. All content components are researched and refined by the journalist. A little like a set of LEGO, defined by the creative designers. The difference is that NewsArcade doesn’t come with fixed building instructions to the news experience. So, the story will have multiple outcomes t. The power to define what is the best obtainable version of the truth, thereby becomes collaborative. Media users are invited behind the scenes – in the newsroom – to join the editorial team and contribute to the enormous amount of effort, thinking, persistence, pushback, removal of ideological baggage, talent and sheer luck, not to mention some unnatural humility, that the journalists perform on an everyday basis.

A prototype of two NewsArcade experiences is currently being tested among one thousand Danish high school students. Through a survey and later scale up events, the genre and methodology will be evaluated as a contribution to the next iteration of the authoring tool. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed of the progress.