Media & Participation: Truth

on 23 January 2008 at about 17:01

Cross-posted at CEMP

This is a synopsis of the fifth session of the Media & Participation unit: Truth.

The fifth session of the Media & Participation unit was concerned with ideas about 'truth'. The online assignment was in two parts:

1: Select one of the suggested readings for this unit, and write a review or synopsis (tagged with media-participation) on

2: Find two contrasting news reports - one of which was produced by traditional media sources, and one which was produced by a non-traditional source (eg a blogger or a 'citizen journalist'), and explain how and why the perspectives within them differ (or not).

This session consisted of a very interesting discussion and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Language and substance

Let's start by looking at some of Al's observations. Al mentions the language that different news reports use. The news story produced by the traditional source uses 'non-emotive' language and thereby strives to seem to be 'unbiased'. Meanwhile the blogger's account is openly derisive - and is free to 'openly show their opinion'.

This is a good angle onto the issues: we see a distinction between 'fact' and 'opinion' (naturally), but also a stylistic difference. So we need to think about the relationship between the language used to describe an event and its 'factual' status. Are these things separable?

Vic's contribution provides a good contrast here. Wikipedia (a non-traditional source, often tarred with the 'unreliability' brush of UGC and citizen media) provides a much more 'factual' account of the crash of BA flight 38 than did The Sun's coverage. Rosie also found that the blogger's account of gaming and violence was more formal and 'evidence-based' than The Guardian.

So it's not enough for us simply to say that UGC permits opinion, while traditional sources must be more 'factual'. Something else is going on. What is it?

What are facts?

If we are to describe a report as 'factual', then we need to know what 'facts' are. How do we know if something is true? One way of thinking about this is to think in terms of 'brute' and 'social' facts.

We might think of 'brute' facts as those which we can identify as having some kind of corresponding 'objective reality', independent of human beings. (This relates to the 'correspondence theory of truth' ). So, Earth is a planet orbiting the Sun; gravity on earth makes everything fall to the ground; this morning I had toast for breakfast.

'Social facts' meanwhile, can't be said to have a corresponding 'objective reality'. We can say it is true that it would be wrong for me to murder a student. If I did murder a student, then I should be punished. Such punishment would be a form of justice. These 'truths', or 'facts' are contingent - on society, on conventions.

So far, so good. The problems start to arise, though, when we look underneath this fairly common-sense approach to truth. We looked at OJ Simpson as an example.

We might say there is an objective fact 'corresponding' to whether or not OJ committed the murder of which he was acquitted. Alongside that, though, there is also the question as to whether people believe he committed the murder or not. What is significant here is that what people believe to be true is more important that what can be discovered to be an objective fact.

Now, we may argue that the whole point is that people who think OJ was guilty also think it is an 'objective fact' that he committed the murder. But if we really were such rational people that we put 'objective facts' first, then we would all say we don't know whether OJ is guilty or not: the fact(!) is that many people believe OJ is guilty, despite being unable to determine the 'objective reality'.

Note that we're not getting into whether there is such a thing as 'objective reality' which we can describe using language in a 'truthful' way (that's a philosophical debate for another occasion). We're simply noting that while we pretend that 'objective fact' is important, we believe what we want to believe, and cite 'objective reality' as a reason for our belief.

Serious facts.

So much for OJ - but we might say that OJ doesn't matter very much anyway. So we looked at a different, more controversial subject - the holocaust. We discussed the controversy around holocaust deniers - people like David Irving who are accused of denying that the holocaust happened, or at least that its magnitude has been exaggerated.

You noted that discussion of the holocaust brings with it certain requirements - we have to be careful what we say about the holocaust because it is a sensitive subject. It highlights the importance of language - Corin said that 'holocaust' is a hebrew word meaning 'whirlwind'. According to Wikipedia, it's a Greek word meaning 'completely burnt'. The Nazis didn't use the word - they called it the 'final solution' - a much more sanitised way of describing mass murder. You also noted that discussing the holocaust requires 'respect'. It forces into the open ideas like 'tragedy' and 'inhumanity'. The key point here is that 'holocaust' has a meaning and an effect on our behaviour and attitude, which is independent of its 'objective reality'. 'Holocaust' means something more than the event itself.

Belief and appeals to objective truth

So, our thesis has become: what we believe to be true is far more important than what is we can state as 'objective fact'. 'Objective facts' are merely things we use to justify what we believe to be true. The consequence of this is that it allows us to see the significance of 'appeals to the objective truth'. When people claim to be stating facts, they are trying to persuade us of something - they want us to believe something.

Once again we examined the example of academic expertise to investigate this kind of persuasion.

We mentioned 'scientific facts' - science discovers certain 'truths' about the world, by 'proofs'. Of course, the problem we have is that none of us are sufficiently qualified in scientific understanding to diagnose whether science deserves this kind of trust. None of us properly understand quantum mechanics, for instance, but I'm sure we all have 'opinions' on whether it is 'true' or not. Whether quantum mechanics is true or false, whether it 'corresponds' to reality or not, is immaterial to whether we believe it or not. We believe what we choose to believe, based on the persuasiveness of those whose arguments we encounter. Seen from this direction, 'factuality' is nothing but rhetoric - a means to persuasion.

'Fact' is a 'social fact'.

Or take our own subject. When you read reviews or synopses on biblipedia, if you see different accounts about the same text, how do you choose which one to believe? Do you look to see if it is written by a tutor or a student? When you write essays, why do your tutors insist on you backing everything you say up with 'evidence' in the form of quotations and case studies?

On the surface, we might say that academic work is about developing 'critical skills' and the ability to engage with 'evidence'. We could just as easily argue, though, that academic work is a way of universities 'legimitising' what they do. 'Academia' has a certain kind of status in our society. There's certainly no incentive for universities to undermine this by saying that academic work is pointless. It is a 'social fact' that 'critical skills' and 'evidence-based thinking' are 'good things'. The system of academic education which universities are a part of require students to do the academic tasks because if they didn't, academia would lose its status. So in this light, the requirement that you all write essays with quotations and evidence is just a way of indoctrinating you with a set of 'values' which will help to ensure that the academic system perpetuates itself.

And in our discussion of Biblipedia, some of you admitted that you found the idea of writing your synopses and reviews in a public space quite daunting: is this fear a symptom of how well the education system and academia has already indoctrinated you into believing in its authority and status? How have you managed to be persuaded that what you think might be wrong?


Regardless of whether we believe in facts or not, we should at least have started to understand many of the phenomena we can observe.

Your next (and final) online assignment is here

UPDATE: interesting discussion about truth and power following the version of this post at CEMP

[Original] Comments

ah yes, fiction is a lie that hides the absence of truth :-)

‘social fact’ is a cultural artifact!!!

Perhaps we use other people’s ‘evidence’ or ‘theories’ not to perpetuate the academic hierarchy, but instead to find concepts to discuss. It is only through the analysis of other arguments, that we can discover what our own views are, and fully explain them to others. Or Joe, do you believe my argument right here has only arisen because I have already been ‘indoctrinated with a set of values’?

I agree that it’s good to have an individual opinion, however it would be a ludicrous education system if we all continuously sprouted theories and ideas founded by nothing other than our own intuitions.

Amanda, my argument was an attempt to illustrate some Foucauldian ideas without resorting to talking about Foucault…

A ‘fact’ isn’t just a ‘fact’ – it is also an expression of an attempt to gain legimitacy and influence.

A piece of evidence is not just a piece of evidence or ‘corroboration’ – it is a tool of persuasion.

Having ‘authority’ and ‘being an expert’ is not just about having knowledge, it is also about having power and influence.

I argue these things are ‘true’ whether or not objective reality exists, whether ‘facts’ are true or false, whether ‘evidence’ is a good thing or not.

So in terms of journalism, or in terms of academic work, appealing to ‘factuality’ and ‘evidence’ may or may not be valid; but it is definitely an expression of a desire to be legitimate and gain influence.

So, what I’m trying to illustrate is that arguments about citizen media vs traditional media are all very well, but they disguise a war of influence. The terms of that war are ‘social facts’ like ‘professionalism’, ‘fact-checking’, ‘evidence’, ‘opinion’, etc.

Yep, both the dismissal of blogs as ‘amateur’ and the attempt to label such activity as ‘citizen journalism’ are aspects of a power discourse related to establishing what is acceptable to know as truth.

But Joe, Foucault doesn’t think power can be possessed as you suggest, rather power acts through the journalist and the blogger. The blogger is an example of the inevitable resistance to the power/knowledge established in the news industry.

Mike, that’s precisely why I avoided talking about Foucault explicitly: he avoids ‘agency’ like the plague (and you’ve called my references to agency a ‘fetish’). I ‘believe’ in agency. I am dynamite.

Also, my reading of resistance is simply as the equal and opposite force of ‘power’ – calling it ‘resistance’ doesn’t make it ‘better’ than the exercise of power. It’s just the same thing, but on the other side of the fulcrum.

I know what you mean about agency, but on resistance, dosn’t foucault explain that in ‘normality’ indentity is reduced and so deviance provides more potential for identity work (or even agency if you like) and it is therefore the search for identity that ensures that normative power produces resistance. In ‘escape attempts’ Cohen and Taylor make much the same arguemnt (but it’s a lot more accessable). They even review foucault in the 2nd edition, highlightingt that their original, slightly negative view of ‘escape’ might be revised as they recognise the humanity in avioding ‘paramount reality’, or ‘scripted life plans’. So actually although Foucault dismisses agency, the resistance that he argues is inevitable is actually where agency is most found.

…and it illustrates some fascinating things about language (which the article began with): ‘identity’ as word expresses both sameness and uniqueness. There is this usually ignored chasm between our surface use of language and the ‘intentionality’ of meaning we have, and the contradictory, constantly defered meanings that can be brought into existence. To say that ‘identity is reduced’ means both that the differences between us are diminished; but it also means that the similarities between us are diminished – because ‘identity’ means both ‘sameness’ and ‘uniqueness’.

And here is where the point about what we ‘believe’ (and what we can express intersubjectively through language) being more important than what we can ‘show to be true’: if everyone uses the phrase ‘to have power’ and everyone thinks of power as something that can be ‘possessed’, then everyone behaves as though power is something that can be possessed and exercised at will. Thus it ‘may as well be true’ that power can be possessed. So when Foucault comes along and says that power is not like that, that there is a deeper ‘truth’ about power that is missed by our common linguistic practices, we should be free to say that Foucault is attempting to ‘resist’ dominant discourse, gain influence, ‘have power’.

What else could saying ‘everyone’s everyday diagnosis of power is wrong’ be but an attempt to ‘change the world’ – and exert power?

I agree with all of this. I think Holstein and Gubrium make this point in their attempt to re-socialise phenomenology into what they call ‘interpretive practice’; a critical effort informed by Foucault. Foucault isn’t reporting something, his is attempting to change the way we see things by asking us to see things differently.

And you remind me also of the distinction Sutton-Smith makes between ‘play as identity’, which is a group think; the games we play together, and ‘play of the self’ which equates to an alienated, individualised society. So yes, identity has this strange fluid nature about it being both a group thing and more recently an anti-group thing.

But you are too sweeping in suggesting that the ‘everyday’ use of power is based on possessing it. This is also a new idea. Surely power is something God alone has? Not people? Or maybe it is about physical strength? In which case I recon I could beat Paul Curran (our VC) in a fight any day (I fought in the Shire wars, don’t you know). But if I beat him up I would lose my job and possibly go to jail. How come? Because we have invented a new type of power; one based on knowledge and supported by institutions such as organisations and the police that enforce normal and control deviant behaviour. And then other organisations come along that enforce ‘truth’ in reporting, and others still that enforce the idea of a degree, etc. So the ‘common sense’ understanding of power that you refer to Joe is a constructed one and therefore we can pull it apart and Foucault gives us a couple of intellectual tools to help us do this.

I don’t disagree, Mike. I suppose I’d say that arguing that the ‘common sense’ understanding of power is ‘wrong’ sounds a bit too much like ‘false consciousness’. To the extent that reality conforms to our expectation (gravity never suddenly reverses), reality is what we agree it is, and the ‘objective reality’ of ‘brute facts’ – being essentially unknowable in the Satrean sense – becomes irrelevant, nothing more than a cipher for the expression of our will.

The interesting question, then, becomes how the intersubjective agreements we forge about the nature of the world are constructed. Foucault is useful to my understanding of this, certainly, but with the caveat that I don’t think he is willing to grasp the nettle and admit agency. I don’t doubt that our potential for agency may be left dormant as we acquiesce to the ‘way of the world’ in many domains of our life, but that is not to say that we therefore can’t use it, don’t have it.

So, I’m unhappy with the idea that power is expressed ‘through’ me, as though I’m a conducting cable. I may unquestioning enact conventional power relationships, but if so, it is through an acquiescence of my own choosing (even if I do not realise it). I am nevertheless free to reject and resist, and forge new enactments of power – though sometimes those choices are difficult to make.

‘freedom’ is just another power discourse ;-)

bollocks :)

Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

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