‘Fair Play to All Sides of the Truth’: Controlling Media Distortions

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Our knowledge and understanding of the world is significantly influenced by news and current affairs reporting by the media. Yet the media can provide only a partial account of the truth, because they are not an infinite resource and selections have to be made about what can be published or broadcast. Editors have considerable discretion to choose what information should be disseminated, albeit constrained by considerations such as journalistic ethics, proprietorial objectives, and the economics of the production process. They may strive to provide at least as full an account of the truth as is possible. Alternatively, they may allow, or be indifferent to the possibility, that even partial truth will be distorted in the stories that they tell. J.S. Mill said that, ‘Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites’ that ‘correctness’ can only be discerned through the process of struggle between them. He continued, ‘ … only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.’ This article examines whether there should be limits imposed on editors’ discretion, and whether law or regulation have a role in determining those limits. It first considers the case for the media having a special role in truth-telling and then reviews the evidence about journalistic news practice. It is argued that, where distortions occur as a result of commercial and institutional pressures in the industry, there are no grounds for privileging the media on the grounds of their freedom of speech. A number of regulatory options are considered as ways of minimising distortion, the preferred approach being a system of ‘enforced ethics.’
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)286-315
Number of pages29
JournalCurrent Legal Problems
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2009


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