Matti Posio on Truth, Objectivity, Fake News and Plain Bullshit – Interview for a Chinese researcher

Interview Transcription of Mr. Matti Posio, Editor-In-Chief of Lännen Media, Finland
Interview by Doctoral Researcher Moxiao Liu, 
PhD candidate, School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University. Visiting PhD of The University of Sydney.

Interview Time: 2019/04/17    Interview Format: Skype Interview

  1. What is the most important function of journalism?

I think it could be divided. I’ll try to give you three functions if that’s all right. I think number one function is to create a fact-based surrounding for discussions, decision- making, debates that go on in our open society. Without media, we would just have various claims and counterclaims, so number one is to provide people, decision makers, companies and everybody with fact-based reporting on what situation our country and the world is in. That’s number one. Secondly, especially independent newspapers, they need to and want to be a forum for various views that exist in the society, to provide a platform and even to provoke a vivid discussion, giving everybody the opportunity to hear about people they agree with and people that they disagree with. In other words, to give pluralism to the society. And then thirdly, of course, as we are in these independent companies, this is also a business in market economy. There is a self-preservation function, which is that you need to do it profitably, or at least you cannot lose money, so you need to be a well- functioning business and organization as well in order to continue doing what you want to do.

  • How about truth/ How important is the truth for journalism?

This question goes very deeply into what we understand by truth. Let me take an example, we had our general election just last Sunday, so you get the election result, which is the truth. We have an open and solid process that you can trust, it’s truthful. And then based on your own opinions and points of view, you interpret the facts. Why did it happen, so forth and so on. Someone will say this party is a clear winner, and the other one will say it is the loser of the election, but still both of them have the same facts, so here comes the interpretation. Truth of course, is very important. You can never lie if you are a journalist, but you will need to focus on certain things and not focus on others because you cannot be a journalist if you just look at all the phenomena in your eyesight with the same size in mind, so the question of truth is kind of a tricky one.

  1. Briefly, what does truth mean to you?

I think truth is always fact-based. When I’m saying truth is a tricky thing, I mean, the truth is right and it’s the honest thing, but once you have a truth about something and then immediately, there will be several interpretations of that truth. The most interesting part of journalism is to move in the gray areas where you don’t actually know what happened yet, and the most important thing and the quest of journalism is to find out the truth about things that matter. Then you can also have various discussions about the truth, various views and interpretations. But you need to keep these two things separate, so you have the news section and the views section.

  • Is getting the facts right the same as truth and why?

They are part of the same family of words, but they are not the same thing. Truth is wider, and facts are more sharply defined than truth. The truth is a very emotional word and a very big word. And of course, you need to be on the side of the truth, and you need to speak the truth, you never lie, but it is a very big word, maybe it is easier to think about facts. But what I want to say is that also in journalism, sometimes emotions are truth and we write down people crying outside the church, their shock and their emotion. That is also the truth and it needs to be reported. You not just report two thousand tons of concrete fell down and these thirteenth century wooden structures are no longer there. Those are facts, but it’s also a fact that it shocked millions of people around the world and we also report that.

  • Is being “objective” the same as being truthful and why?

That is another tricky word. I mean, who defines what is being objective? For example, various groups of interests will claim that objectivity means different things. Oftentimes, you would call someone objective who simply agrees with you. Objectivity is an ideal. It means that you get all sides of the story, you don’t twist and you don’t spin the story like politicians or marketing people do, and just tell as it is. That is the objectivity for me, that you don’t calculate the effects of the truth so much, but you would just want to get the truth out.

But then comes to the question that we also need to be responsible. Part of the truth might be that there are many dead bodies there and it looked very horrible. There are these violent details of the crime and sometimes you don’t want to delve into them so much, because you want to save readers from all these atrocities. And it’s still the truth even if you don’t do certain things. As a journalist, you also need to do your cut of the story. You cannot just cover everything and then write tens of thousands of characters of the news. You need to choose something, and this is the power of journalist. Actually, on the responsibility of journalists, we get to decide what are the significant facts to take into the story, because you cannot just list everything that you know, and here comes the power and the responsibility.

But let me mention one important thought that I’ve had over past years about objectivity. When I was studying journalism and mass media twenty years or twenty-five years ago, objective journalism was the buzz word then. But now I think it’s a more important thing to report all sides and being open about your own decisions. Why did you decide to interview this person? And why did you do this journalistic decision? You open it up to your readers so that they will understand that they can be the judges of whether you are objective or not. So sometimes openness is the new objectivity. Problem in the times of post-truth, propaganda, fake news and lies, is when you have two conflicting narratives. Let’s take the situation in Ukraine for example, you have two competing narratives, are you being objective if you take fifty percent of the western narrative and fifty percent of the Russian narrative? The question is what happens if you are covering an argument where one person is telling the truth and the other person is lying? If you take fifty percent of the truth and fifty percent of the lie and then you make the story, is that actually being objective? In my count, this recipe gives you, I’m not a mathematician, like only 30 percent of the truth in your story. Then while being objective, you are also lying.

We should be critical and we should always think about things deeper than just on the level of bumper stickers. Of course, It’s easy to say that all journalists must be objective. But what does it mean in practice?  When you come to the situation where you as a journalist needs to do your decision, what are you going to do? And then objectivity doesn’t help. Let’s take a more extreme example, like Nazi Germany or later on some neo Nazi or some aggressive groups and terrorist groups. If you want to be objective, you just tell the story that the British government says this and the ISIS terrorist group says that. Or you want to take a stand that actually terrorism is wrong and our heroes are the people who stood up to the Nazis and tried to save Jews back in the 1930s in Germany? Some of them were probably journalists. I don’t see in the face of evil, how you can be objective and that comes just the responsibility part in journalism. Of course, various governments and various groups always want to blame and name others as terrorists, so you also need to be critical. I don’t think objectivity is always as enduring as we might think.

Then you have to be coherent in the way that you write the story. If someone says something, it doesn’t mean that how the thing is, it doesn’t mean that it is so, the fact is just that person told us that. There is a difference– reporting something as a fact or reporting that someone told you. But telling that this guy said this and that guy said that doesn’t necessarily result in the truth yet. Definitely, a responsibility towards the reader and the society, openness to the audience, and being conscious about your own prejudice and decisions are more important for achieving truth. Sometimes in a column, you can tell the truth more easily than just laying out all various quotes.

  1. Many people say we are living in a “post-truth era”. What’s your understanding of “post-truth”?

I’m not an academic person, so I have not really studied the meaning of the word and where it came from. But from the point of view of a journalist in Finland, I think post-truth is connected to the fact that more people are part of the discussion now. With social media, some of the post-truth issue is just caused by ordinary people, for example, they forward or echo stories that they find interesting but not necessarily true. If you have a tweet or you have something on Facebook and then you like it, you just forward it to your friends and they forward on, and sometimes some bullshit stories become something that everybody is talking about. To me, it is a post-truth phenomenon. But that is less serious than the other post-truth phenomenal issue. Politicians, leaders and powerful people are trying to twist the truth. I think without Mr. Trump, we would not be speaking so much about post-truth. Even one personality can have a huge impact on what we talk about. Politicians, parties and leaders have always tried to spin the truth, and spin the stories in a way that they will get the result that they’d like to happen. This happens even in an office. If you’re the manager, you always want to tell stories, and you want to lead by changing the way that people think, how they react and how they work. And that’s okay. But then when you start telling stories, stories that are misleading, and you know that they are misleading, it then becomes post-truth. Actually, post-truth means that truth is gone if you take the word literally, but I don’t think the truth has lost yet, the truth is still strong, but it’s surrounded by much more versions, fake stories, lies and falsehoods than ever before.

Maybe it’s easier to think about truth when we look at this concept of post-truth, because it seems to be something where you mix it up with a bunch of lies, exaggerations and all misleading parts, and then it becomes a post-truth lie or there is an American expression “bullshit”. I think that’s much better. It’s not necessarily always a lie, usually there is some truth to it. But then some people, most famously, such as Mr. Trump, they have a loose tongue, so you have part of the truth, something that actually happened, but then you come up with your own interpretations, and it becomes actually just bullshit. I don’t know if you can publish this word, but sometimes it’s more fitting than just truth and lies.

I have been myself a correspondent in Russia for years and followed the Russian state-owned media, so I can say about the Russian system where you would have fifteen TV channels and all would provide you with the same message. What we see is that similar methods of twisting the truth that have been used in Russia for years have slowly become parts of the western democracy, because of social media and the changes in the ways that more people can now participate. Not all people are very keen on facts, but there might also be people who deliberately want to shake western societies by bringing in these kind of post-truth or fake news methods.

  • What’s the main source of post-truth as you understand it? Who’s producing and distributing post-truth?

You have the echo chamber on social media. Everybody is talking, and everybody is publishing blogs. Not all of them have been trained as journalists or researchers. Now journalists and researchers have a voice, but everybody else also has a voice. And they have become on the same level more and more, so you need to separate who you want to believe. I think that’s the surroundings where post-truth phenomenon has grown.

And then like Trump’s campaign or Brexit campaign, they just brought things such as people who did not like the European Union or who wanted to protest against this into democracy and decision-making. Those things were amplified. And that is now causing a lot of problems, like the UK has been trying to get out of the EU according to the referendum results for three years now, and it turns out that it’s not that easy and might be very harmful for the country.

One more part of the post-truth environment is that more and more international parties, government and secret services are also using the same tools to go into information feeds and social media discussions. You can create fake personality and there seems to be a whole industry trying to use these opportunities and it’s possible to do it across country borders. There seems to be a real interest in using the truth, facts and media landscape to impact decision-making and democracy in other countries.

  • What can be done about post-truth?

First of all is to continue giving high standards as a journalist. That’s what each of us can do in our own little place, that we keep separating facts from fiction, keep being responsible and keep being open.

Then on a more broader level, we should make sure that we support a society with independent media and research so that these fact-based voices are always there, they are heard strongly enough and are available to the majority of the people. For example, foundations can fund quality journalism without making a quality journalism dependent on government. You don’t let society has too many groups that don’t understand each other and who have even the facts that are completely different from each other. It’s difficult to keep a nation together if everyone has their own facts and alternative versions of  truth.

Thirdly, I think traditionally democracy is very important because, for example, the United States system, Trump became president, he was elected and he might even be elected again, but this is different from countries which don’t have a traditional democracy. In the American system, there are checks and balances, so Trump will never become a dictator. There are always other parties, politicians, court system and independent judiciary. They are giving obstacles for Mr. Trump. And actually, a lot of the things that he wanted to do have not succeeded. As a president, he is not able to do it because there are strong obstacles even from within his own party and I think this is just the important safeguard that you never give the full power without check and balance.

  1. In addition to post-truth, are there any other obstacles that prevent journalists from achieving truth?

There are always obstacles for journalists, and we should try to be persistent, overcome the obstacles and cut through the bullshit. But also, I would mention the harsh economic situation that some media are in. We are in the transition of going from printed newspapers to electronic media. In the time of printed media, the business model was very strong. You would have your subscribers and they would fund the newspaper, and then you would have your advertisers. But now more people have gone to the digital world, to smartphones. The smartphone ecosystem is not usually controlled by us, but by international global companies, like Apple, Huawei and Amazon. Those are very strong players. That is a challenge for the business model and you have lost your advertisers because ordinary people sell their stuff to each other by going to online digital customer services instead of traditional newspaper ads, so you’ve lost a big chunk of advertising, a big chunk of your print subscribers, and you need to build a new business model.

But when you do it, you will find out that not always important things in the society or politics or economy that sells, but oftentimes touching stories about people and those interesting stories. I cannot say that they are wrong, you can do them in a quality way and sell them to people. But those are oftentimes more interesting than the politics and national events that journalists traditionally would consider to be important.  There is a big discussion about what actually is important. When you get all the data about what people want to read, how much will you give in? Do you just do the stories that they want to read or you also do the stories that are considered to be significant and important? If people are not interested in reading about climate change, would you still want to write about climate change even if it doesn’t bring you any Euros or new subscriptions? Or you just want to write about the stuff that brings you money? There are two angels sitting on your shoulders. One is saying that you need to be profitable and the other is saying that you need to tell the truth and the important stuff. You need to combine both of them. You need to be interesting to your readers, but you also need to tell the news that give the important information to them. And it’s very important that editors-in-chief and the leading journalists are good people that they a heart and a sense of what’s important, so they are not just sales people. You will have sales people in your newsroom as well or at least just right outside your door, putting pressure on you, but you still need to do what’s right. And I am quite optimistic about how it will be, because in the end, readers will take us to the task: speak the truth and raise the alarm when needed. That’s basically what most people still want from journalism and that gives me a lot of hope.