‘Fake news’ and ‘real news’

Journalism can inform, advocate, and entertain. Yet there is something greater journalism can do: it can enlighten and illumine.

Gustavo Graf/Reuters
A solitary man reads a newspaper on Juárez Avenue in Mexico City on April 19, 2020.

Today, there is a lot of talk about facts in journalism, and understandably so. Without facts, there is no journalism, and at a time when people are increasingly looking to media to confirm their own worldviews, facts can take a back seat.

But there’s something else this moment is asking us about journalism – something that’s equally as important but perhaps a little harder to wrap our minds around. And that is: What is journalism about, really?

The fact is, journalism can do different things. Most obviously, it can inform. But it can also advocate, and it can entertain. All these things are valuable if done honestly and destructive if done selfishly. Yet there is something more journalism can do that, I would argue, is greater than any of these other crucial tasks. It can enlighten and illumine.

Taken simply by the measure of informing or entertaining, for example, Taylor Luck’s cover story does reasonably well. It informs us that Saudi Arabia is opening itself to new expressions of art and culture, and it explores the motivations for Saudi leadership in allowing this. Yet how important is that in the grand scheme of things?

And the anecdotes of new artistic expression taking root might be entertaining to some, but can they really compete with the latest “Avengers” film or LeBron James highlights on “SportsCenter”?

The real value of Taylor’s story is somewhere else – in the idea behind it. You could think of articles like a quantum of light. The ideas behind them are like packages of energy waiting to be released. 

Every article is something larger than just a collection of words and facts. The success of an article is how well it releases that light. When that happens, the result is illumination and enlightenment – a soul-deep influx in understanding that goes beyond just information.

What is that deeper quantum of light in Taylor’s story? The proof of the bedrock human need to express beauty and harmony and how, when freed, that expression spontaneously grows.

There’s a lesson and a law there. Freedom expands and enlarges. The influx of freedom that rippled through the world after World War II was one of the most momentous eras in human history. It expanded wealth, health, and human rights in an explosion of energy never before seen on that scale.

Now Saudi Arabia has consented to let freedom expand, at least in some small measure. Yet even in that small measure, the explosion of energy that has taken place is remarkable, Taylor’s story shows.

The world is always yearning to be larger. Every advance is in some ways just the seed for further change. Monitoring that seed in Saudi Arabia – and everywhere – is something more than informing or advocating or entertaining. It is a pathway to journalism that feeds our best selves as individuals and societies.  

“Fake news” needs to be addressed and rooted out. But perhaps “real news” is more than just getting the facts right.

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