... is to serve truth and democracy
Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002
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field of journalism in Serbia
Definitions of truth
Truth as reality and rhetoric
Alternative definitions of truth
The ideal of truth as 'truth of external reality'
The aim of this paper is to analyze the discursive use of truth as a central cultural category among journalists in Serbia. The paper is based on seven months of fieldwork on different medias in Serbia from July 2000 until January 2001. This is a period in Serbia characterised by political turbulence. A period where the former president Slobodan Milosevic in September 2000 lost the presidential elections to Vojislav Kostunica, and later in December 2000 the Democratic Opposition of Serbia also won the majority in the Serbian Parliament.
In many countries in Southern and Eastern Europe the existence of independent journalism has been a way of measuring the degree of democracy in society. Therefore journalism and the rise of independent medias all over South- and Eastern Europe have played a pivotal role in the process of democratisation.
In this paper I will outline some of my informants thoughts and ideals and some formally articulated objectives about good journalism in a democratic society. The main thesis of this paper is, that the journalistic ideal of truth serves as a way of differentiating journalism from policy. Especially in a country as Serbia where journalism for many years has been interwoven with politics, a way of differentiating journalism from politics is by defining journalism as being objective, truth telling, non-partial and non-political. In reality many journalists in Serbia are closely connected with politics either by being member of a political party or personal friend with a number of politicians. This paper addresses the gap between the rhetoric and reality that exists at the heart of journalism in Serbia.
Theoretically I base this paper on inspiration from Marianne Gullestad (1992), Pierre Bourdieu (1996) and Kevin Williams (1992).
The paper falls in two parts. Firstly, I will look at different definitions of truth as a central cultural category between journalists. Secondly I will analyze the use of truth as a central cultural category.
I will start by giving a short introduction to my use of the concept 'field of journalism'. I borough the concept 'field' from Pierre Bourdieu:
'A field may be seen as a structured space of positions in which the positions and their interrelations are determined by the distribution of different kinds of resources or 'capital'.[ ] A field is always the site of struggles in which individuals seek to maintain or alter the distribution of the forms of capital specific to it. The individuals who participate in these struggles will have differing aims - some will seek to preserve the status quo, others to change it - and differing chances of winning or losing, depending on where they are located in the structured space of positions' (John B. Thompson in P. Bourdieu 1991:14)
All individuals in the same field will share in common certain fundamental presupposes and values. All participants must believe in the value of what is at stake (ibid). Inspired by Bourdieu and his analysis in 'TV and the power of journalism' from 1996 I define the different medias in Serbia and the journalist working there as a field of journalism. And the struggle within the field is mainly a conflict over the definition of reality, and gaining symbolic power in order to legitimize one's version of reality (P. Bourdieu 1996: 23). One of the main struggles in the field concerns the value of truth. Truth is both a guideline for journalism but also a way of maintaining or improving ones position in the field. Truth is a way of claiming the right to represent reality and a way of positioning oneself among other journalists in the field.
There are several reasons for using the definition 'field of journalism'. Firstly, because my analysis is very inspired by the theories of Pierre Bourdieu and especially his analysis of the medias in France from 1996 (P. Bourdieu 1998). Pierre Bourdieu is one of the few anthropologists who have been analyzing the relations between journalists, the different medias in France and the relation between the medias in France and in the rest of the world. Secondly, many of the journalists define themselves as a research object and see the medias in Serbia as a field. This is mainly due to the fact that many Serbian intellectuals and journalists conduct research on the medias in Serbia. When I arrived in the field it was not a surprise to my informants that a western anthropologist wanted to conduct research on the medias in Serbia.
In order to understand the national field of journalism in Serbia one needs to understand the position of the national field of journalism in relation to other medias in the world (ibid). In other words to understand the position of national Serbian medias in relation to international medias like CNN, BBC, Sky News etc. Both internally in the national field of journalism in Serbia and in relation to the international medias truth is a central category in the struggle over the right to represent reality.
In an article on war reporters Kevin Williams (1992) asks the question whether ' it is the proper task of the journalist in wartime to be more concerned with the 'truth of the imagination' than with the 'truth of external reality''(ibid:154). In wartime, journalism is faced with a number of ethical problems. At the heart of these, there is a basic ethical dilemma about the role of the journalist at times of armed conflict involving his or her country and how to resolve the competing claims made by their work and their country (ibid:155). Kevin William states, that if the survival of a society is threatened then most journalists would interfere with truth. Winning the war is then more important than telling the truth and winning the war involves the manipulation of truth in order to maintain popular support for the war. Also, there is the question of commitment for ideological as well as personnel reasons, like when journalists develop a strong sense of empathy with the soldiers they live alongside. The focal point in this article by Kevin Williams is the division he makes between two types of truth: 'Truth of the imagination' as when a journalist for one reason or another chooses not to tell the truth but to tell what he finds more important than truth, and 'truth of external reality' as objective facts independent of the mind.
'Truth of the imagination'
|'Truth of external reality'|
When something is more important than the truth
|The reality of things independent of the mind|
A parallel can be drawn to my data from Serbia where many journalists believes that it was more important for the opposition to win the elections against Slobodan Milosevic than telling the truth. One of the main reasons for not telling the truth was the journalist's ideological commitment to the Democratic Opposition of Serbia. At many occasions, the journalists expressed the opinion that the Serbian people had suffered long enough with Milosevic being the president, so it would be in the interests of the people to change the government. Winning the elections therefore involved the manipulation of the truth in order to maintain popular support for the Democratic Opposition of Serbia. In the interest of the people, journalists therefore judge that it is more important to have a change of government than to give the readers the right to know all the facts. This attitude among the journalists, and their active support to the Democratic Opposition of Serbia before the presidential elections and the election for national parliament, can be defined as what Kevin Williams calls 'truth of the imagination'.
I will come with a few examples on defining truth as 'truth of the imagination' or as 'truth of external reality' from my Serbian data. This I will do in order to raise the question, whether it is useful to look at two ways of defining truth, or if it is possible to find more than two definitions of truth among journalists in Serbia.
Following the Serbian revolution in October 2000 many foreign medias began showing their interest in Serbian medias. In December a group of British journalist from BBC came to RTS - the national Serbian Radio and Television. The purpose of the visit, was to teach Serbian journalists how to make good, democratic, objective and true journalism. The British journalist had former been in Rwanda and South Africa.
The lessons in independent journalism were primarily targeted at Serbian journalist working in the news department. Every morning around 30 Serbian journalists took part in the lessons and a few editors also turned up. One of the first days, the BBC journalists explained to the Serbian journalist what was the prime objective for democratic and independent journalism.
'The most important objective of journalism is to serve truth. Before all we most show the truth. We work with the truth and with the best method of showing the truth in a way that our audience understands it [ ] what is independent journalism? It is the responsibility to tell the truth and to seek the truth. In totalitarian societies they tell lies in the medias, which affects the audiences perception of reality. The main aim of journalism is to tell the truth'.
In this explanation, given by the BBC journalists, the truth is the basic raw material of journalism. The truth in the explanation of the BBC journalists is what Williams calls 'truth of external reality' an objective truth independent of the human mind. A Serbian journalist was critical toward this definition of truth and asked whether the British journalist themselves believed it possible to tell the truth completely independent of their own opinions, the opinions of the media at which the worked and independent of political commitments? The British journalist nodded their heads and insisted on this definition of truth as being the guideline for journalism. It was obvious that some of the Serbian journalist found this claim to idealist.It was evident that the British journalist who came to teach independent journalism could not and would not compromise this definition of truth and democratic journalism, whereas many of the Serbian journalists had a more pragmatic definition of truth.
The British journalists had a specific purpose of coming to Serbia, namely the purpose of teaching the principles of independent journalism in a democratic society. They came to improve and change the attitude of their Serbian colleagues. To understand their insistence on truth as 'truth of external reality', it is important to include the position of the media they represent in the global media field. BBC has a reputation as a reliable and independent media. The British journalist takes an idealistic stand when they talk about journalism; they talk about the ideals of journalism and not about everyday pragmatic and daily journalistic practice. Therefore they use an ideological definition of truth - as a truth independent of the human mind that the journalists should seek. It is important for the British journalists that they keep their position in the media field. They represent BBC which is a well know and a high prestige TV station. They represent a TV station which has a dominant position in the global media field, both in an economic, political and symbolic manner, and it is this position which the BBC journalists tries to preserve by insisting on the definition of truth as 'truth of external reality' - a non compromising definition of truth.
I will give a few empirical examples of the use of the two definitions of truth. The definition of truth as 'truth of external reality' makes good sense as an ideal for journalism - as a rhetoric of truth.
Shortly before the election for the National Parliament in December I meet one of the journalists at Tanjug, Vlada Gajic. Kostunica was at the moment president and DOS had the majority in the Federal Parliament, and the voters were to elect candidates for the National Parliament in December. Gajic was member of the group 17 - an independent economic group, which where supporting DOS during the presidential elections. At that time, it was well know among journalists that Kostunica and Djindjic where often discussing and had a lot of disagreements concerning the way of doing politics. This was rarely or never mentioned in the medias. I asked the journalist Gajic why this was the case, that the problems and disagreements between Djindjic and Kostunica was never mentioned - why the journalists tried to protect them? His answer was:
'It is truth that there exist a general attitude between the journalists that DOS ought to win the elections and therefore the journalists write nice articles about the relationship between Djindjic and Kostunica. As a citizen I support DOS, but as a journalist I should be neutral and not be worried about the reaction from our readers. We should give all information.'
The ideal of Gajic is that journalists ought to be neutral and give out all information no matter what kind of reactions it might provoke from the readers. In reality, Gajic is one of the journalists supporting DOS through his articles. This example shows an attitude to journalism where the ideals are objectivity and political neutrality, but where there is a gap between the rhetoric and reality of journalism. In this example, it is not censorship in the classical sense where the journalists are forced to write a specific opinion either by the editor in chief, politicians or others. The journalist himself chose to have a certain opinion and bias. It is more important for the journalist to assure that DOS wins the elections than to give all information to the readers. The central point in this argument is that the journalists have a rhetoric definition of truth and another definition when it comes to pragmatics.
The division, which Kevin Williams uses, is a useful way of explaining two existing definitions of truth in journalism. The question is, whether there exists more than the two mentioned definitions among journalists in Serbia.
I found that the two definition of truth used by Kevin Williams only partially covers the way the Serbian journalists talks about truth. There where several other ways of defining truth.
In a conversation with the journalist, Dubravka, who works for the national television, she talked about truth in this way:
'Nobody came and asked us to change strategy. We have been working so long with censorship in our minds that we know by instinct what is to be told and what not. What is truly difficult at the moment is the fact, that truth is neither white nor black. The first lesson must be to show both sides. The transition and the confusion makes us doubt and we have to show all perspectives of one case and then it is up to the readers to decide what it truth. Maybe, after the elections to the National Parliament it will be simpler again. This period is very free - we do not have pressure from any sides - maybe it is freedom'.
The truth is, following Dubravka, nor white nor black because everything is confusion and transition. When the political circumstances are stabile again, then truth will also be. In Dubravkas definition of truth, truth is not independent of the human mind like 'truth of external reality', she talks about truth as a dependent on politics. And when truth, following Dubravka, depends on political power then truth changes as the political power does. This understanding of truth as depended on political interest is also evident in an interview with one of the editors at Dnevnik in Novi Sad, Karanovik:
'The purpose of journalism is to seek the truth - which is not always pleasant for the regime. Therefore professional journalism is always in opposition to the regime. Milosevic had a solution to this problem - he used bad journalists. His regime choose unprofessional journalist to the important posts. When someone printed the truth they where fired' later in the interview he explained 'As long as different opinions exist, different truths will exist. The centralist government in Belgrade will never have the same opinion as the government in Vojvodina. We should write truth in interest of the readers.'
In this quote Karanocik uses several definitions of truth. He defines truth as independent from political power, as a guideline for journalism, a definition of truth as 'truth of external reality'. At the same time Karanovik defines truth as something depending on political interests ' As long as different opinions exist, different truths will exist', a political definition of truth like Dubranka. Finally Karanovik defines truth as being in the interest of the readers. The ambivalence in the many definitions of truth, I believe, is due to the gap between the rhetoric of truth and truth in daily journalistic practice. Karanoviv has an ideal of a truth independent of the human mind, a 'truth of external reality', which ought to be the guideline for all journalists, but when it comes to daily journalistic practice he uses more pragmatic definitions of truth as something bound to political interests or in the interests of the readers.
To summarize from the three examples, I found four definitions of truth in the different interviews. There is a definition of truth as something in the interest of the readers, which both Dubravka and Vladimir Gajic use. Both of them, talks about a confusion and insecurity why they choose to let the readers define truth, 'The transition and the confusion makes us doubt and we have to show all perspectives of one case and then it is up to the readers to decide what it truth' as Dubravka explaines and Gajic explaines 'as a journalist I should be neutral and not be worried about the reaction from our readers. Vi should give all information'.
An attitude to journalism, as one should report all that ones see and then leave the judgment to the readers. The public's right to know as the guiding principle for honest and open reporting - the final decision rests with the people. And the people, so that they may make up their minds, must be given all the facts. This last statement from Gajic assumes a view of readers, as rational actors who weigh up the information they receive and then make up their mind as to the truth of what they are told.
As I mentioned earlier, I find that there are four different definitions of truth in the above-mentioned examples. Which can be illustrated as the following:
Truth as independent of human perception
Most of the journalists, whom I spoke to in Serbia, are skeptical towards this ideal of 'truth of external reality'; anyhow they all claimed this was the main ideal of journalism. Why do they keep this ideal of 'truth of external reality' without believing it to be a realistic goal? I believe the reasons are several.
One reason is historical and is related to the western popular definition of democracy. Independent journalism is a way of measuring the degree of democracy in a given society. And especially in a country like Serbia the history of the medias has been closely connected to the political history and many believes that the independent medias in Serbia where one of the main reason why Milosevic was brought down. It reflects the fact that censorship is an emotive term in a country which calls itself a democracy (Kevin Williams 1992:159). To legitimize both the democracy and journalism in Serbia it is therefore vital to claim that journalism is independent of any political interest. This is also reflected in the convention of the Independent Journalist Association of Serbia where principle number four and five are: 4)'All political and other forms of pressure on news media should be eliminated, 5). State-run media outlets should be transformed into a public service, with non-partisan editorial policy and civil control'. The position of the medias in society can only be maintained if it is differentiated from the political power in Serbia. To maintain the popular definition of the role of medias in a democratic society, an ideal of journalism as independent of any political or other interest must be preserved.
Another explanation comes from seeing truth as a central cultural category in the field of journalism. I will following look at the use of values in social relations inspired by Marianne Gullestad (1992).
In the book 'The art of social relations - essays on Culture, Social Action and Everyday Life in Modern Norway' Marianne Gullestad gives an interesting analysis on the use of values and central cultural categories in Norway. She finds a number of values in Norway as 'equality and sameness', 'independence', 'love of nature', 'self-control', 'peace and quiet' and others. Gullestad finds that these categories are seen as significant for Norwegian culture, and analyzing their meaning brings one into central aspects of cultural practices in Norway (ibid:22) Gullestad makes the conclusion, that many people share common overarching categories and values without having the common or similar experience that result in a specific content being given to those categories (ibid). People seem to understand each other when they talk about different values or categories or they communicate on the basis of working misunderstandings (ibid).
'I have looked at the categories which are used to justify without themselves needing justification. [ ] Many people may engage in similar practices and use the same categories in roughly the same way without necessarily implying that they have exactly the same concrete meanings. This means, first of all, that they share an assumption that such notions have some common meanings. Second, they actually share the ability to use the notions rhetorically in order to make themselves understood (ibid).
I find the analysis of Gullestad very illuminating and see some parallels to the use of truth as a central cultural category in journalism in Serbia. Following Gullestad, it gives sense to understand the use of the category 'truth' as a central cultural category, which is shared by all journalists. A category that can be used with different content, and thereby a category witch can tie together the journalistic field and legitimate differences in the journalistic field. In this way 'truth' can be used as a category, which unites the journalists and at the same time differentiate the journalistic field from other fields like especially the political field.
Finally, the ideal of truth as 'truth of external reality' is also used as symbolic capital in the field of journalism. The struggle within the field is mainly a conflict over the definition of reality, and gaining symbolic power in order to legitimize one's version of reality (P. Bourdieu 1996: 23). One of the main struggles in the field concerns the value of truth. Truth is both a guideline for journalism but also a way of maintaining or improving ones position in the field. In this way truth is a way of claiming the right to represent reality and a way of positioning oneself among other journalists and medias in the field. Like for example, when one of my journalist friends told me that maybe the newspaper he worked for sometimes told lies, but on another competing newspaper they did not write any truth at all. In that way 'truth' is also used as symbolic capital defining one media as closer to truth than another, and thereby giving this media a better position in the field of journalism.
Summarizing the conclusions from this paper. It is my main argument that the ideal of 'truth of external reality' as the guideline for journalism is a way of differentiating the field of journalism from the field of politics. The insistence on this ideal is both a way of tying together the field of journalism by the use of truth as a central cultural category, and at the same time truth is used as symbolic capital in the battle over the representation of reality within the field of journalism. Finally, it is important to stress that this ideal of truth keeps alive the ideal of democracy as resting upon a division of journalism and political power, and medias as being independent and critical towards political power.
Marianne Gullestad 1992: 'The art of social relations - essays on Culture, Social Action and Everyday Life in Modern Norway'.
Kevin Williams 1992 in: 'Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media'.
Pierre Bourdieu 1998: TV and the power of journalism' and 1992 :'Language & Symbolic Power'.