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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Telling the Truth in the Media: Mathematically Approved

by Mahmoud Eid, Ph.D.

As U.S. threats against Iraq mounted in 2003, the majority of media decision-makers docilely accepted the Bush administration’s claims that linked Iraq to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Their reports lacked sufficient investigation and verification. There were rare examples of truthful and responsible journalism, however. Oliver Moore of The Globe and Mail, on December 6th, 2002, reported on the Iraqi insistence, through the announcements of the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed al-Douri, that everything related to the weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed. Moore explained that the Iraqi government was “tired of repeating ‘again and again’ that it is not breaking any U.N. resolutions”.

Though Moore’s truthful coverage was not appreciated by audiences or governments at that time, I think The Globe and Mail was very proud of their responsible coverage and increasing credibility when the truth was revealed later on.

By and large, the media strive to tell the truth, but what if the ‘truth’ as they know it consists of distorted facts? The unavoidable end result is that they repeat lies. Further, what about the subjectivity of truths arising from their societal context? As with ethical practices, what might be considered ethical practices from one perspective can be considered quite the opposite from another. It would seem, therefore, that there must be a way to solve these dilemmas and make media conduct more responsible, no matter what side of the fence reporters are on.

A reasonable solution to the ethical dilemmas media personnel face can be found using mathematics. In game theory (a branch of pure mathematics), there is one type of a game called the Truth Game. The Truth Game focuses on the ethical principle of telling the truth, but it can be broadened to encompass the ethical principles that guide any response to a dilemma. The Truth Game, which has been explained mathematically in my dissertation (2004), highlights the fact that telling the truth is a rational conduct that, in general, will lead to the best outcome for the media in relating to their audiences.

Investigating the ethical and unethical paths that journalistic coverage takes, one finds a motivation for journalists to report ethically and honestly. Journalists, editors, managers, and owners are likely to take actions that will (provably) benefit the medium and contribute to the common good of society. My dissertation demonstrated that telling the truth is fundamental in achieving goodness and managing a conflict peacefully (or winning a game). Therefore, motivation towards ethical conduct, where otherwise the tendency may be to opt for another path, would stem from a desire to achieve beneficial consequences. Further, this contributed to clarifying the debate surrounding the ambiguity of “ethical and unethical, but from whose perspective”, as journalists recognize that in telling the truth, whose veracity has been checked and verified – regardless of what it is, or who is favored by its content – will benefit them and ultimately result in favorable consequences. In essence, rational thinking, through use of game theory, helps us to understand and explore the advantages of ethical obligations in journalism. Rationality obligates media workers to adhere to ethical codes as a key condition for benefiting all parties involved.

When modeling the verification problem between superpowers in his Superpower games: Applying game theory to superpower conflict (1985), Steven Brams introduced a simple two-person, non-constant-sum (non-zero-sum) game of imperfect information played between a signaler (S) and a detector (D)—The Truth Game. I argue that if the mass media take the signaler position and the audiences take the detector position in the truth game, as illustrated below, it is rational choice that they will tell the truth in order to achieve their safer outcome (the next-worst) and avoid the possibility of getting the worst outcome, while they also participate in allowing their audiences to get their best outcome.

In the truth game between the mass media and their audiences, the media face the challenge of telling the truth. Media executives must decide whether to tell the truth when choosing content, and after they have made their choice, their audiences must then decide whether to believe the content. The Truth Game uses numbers to rank the outcomes of decisions made by the two players (the media and the audience) that satisfy specified goals (truth-telling and believability). Counterintuitively, verification and falsification exist on diagonals, both involving true and false statements. That means that verification ranges from strong to weak, strong being a believed truth and weak being a disbelieved fallacy. Conversely, the falsification diagonal crosses from believed fallacy to a disbelieved truth. In other words, falsification is range of wrongness and verification is a range of correctness. The chart below assigns numerical values to each option, indicating that strong verification (2,4) is numerically the highest and best outcome, while weak verification (1,3) is the worst. That means that the worst possible scenario for journalists is to have an audience that knows it lies. Journalists have seen this in action as citizen journalism has skyrocketed in stature.

It is worth noting that as a game of hiding and discovering the truth, with a secondary emphasis on the mass media’s desire to be believed and the audiences’ desire that the mass media be truthful, the truth game enables one not only to distinguish verification (main-diagonal outcomes) from falsification (off-diagonal outcomes), but also it suggests a strong and weak distinction in each of these main categories. Thus, verification is considered stronger when one believes the truth than when one disbelieves a lie (or untruth), because the truth is still unclear in the latter case. Similarly, falsification seems stronger when a lie (or untruth) is believed than when the truth is disbelieved, because disbelief in the truth indicates that one has missed the truth but not necessarily that one has been hoodwinked into believing a falsehood.

Given the fact that this game is not one of total conflict, i.e. what one player wins does not necessary mean that the other loses, both players do better at (2,4) than at (1,3). That is, it is better for everyone when the news is truthful and the audiences believe it than any alternative. In other words, truth to be believed is better than lies (or untruths) to be disbelieved because the former is strong verification while the latter is weak verification. In addition, the fact that (2,4) is better for both players than (1,3), and there is not another outcome better for at least one player and not worse for the other than (2,4), means that this is the best outcome that the mass media should work for, given that they start playing first.

Because there is no stability in this game, the mass media can do immediately better by departing in the directions shown by the vertical arrows, from (2,4) to (4,1) and from (1,3) to (3,2). Also, audiences can do immediately better by departing in the directions shown by the horizontal arrows, from (4,1) to (1,3) and from (3,2) to (2,4). However, if audiences could predict the mass media’s strategy choice with certainty and if the mass media knew this, the game would reach an equilibrium if it were played sequentially. The mass media would choose (T) and audiences would respond with (B); but each would do worse by departing from these strategies.

In other words, there is a risk for the mass media of not telling the truth, and the worst outcome stems from audience disbelief in the face of media untruths. In contrast, if the mass media tell the truth, the audiences will be most benefited (seek their best outcome) by believing them. This provides the media decision-makers with internal motivation to tell the truth, thereby following one of the major journalistic ethical principles, that is based on their recognition that rational thinking will lead to achieving their desired goals and help them to practice their responsible role in society.

It can even be argued that the media can play an influential role in government policymaking by being truthful. That is, if rationality leads the media to be truthful and abide by ethical principles, they will not rely blindly on announcements by governments or military authorities. Rather, they will access various sources of information ensuring that the veracity of this information has been checked and verified before passing it on to the public. If this adherence to the truth is followed, then audiences will trust that what the news media say is true. But, and here is the catch, if they find that the news media say “the authorities are hiding facts” or that there is no access for the media to the information, then the audiences will think that the government is doing something wrong, since if they weren’t they would not be afraid of the media’s scrutiny. Thus, denying the media access or telling them lies will lead to negative attitudes towards the authorities. That is, the credibility of the media that has been acquired by playing the Truth Game rationally and telling the truth to audiences gives them power over authorities, but their choice of not telling the truth, which is irrational according to the Truth Game, will make them lose credibility not only with their audiences but also in their relations with the authorities.

Dr. MAHMOUD EID is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa. He previously taught in the University of Regina’s School of Journalism, and in Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. His professional expertise lies in quantitative and qualitative research regarding the effects of mass media and social development. His teaching experience, research interests, and publications concentrate on media ethics, international communication, terrorism, crisis management and conflict resolution. The title of his Ph.D. dissertation is: ‘Interweavement – Building a crisis decision-making model for rational responsibility in the media: International communication, political crisis management, and the use of mathematics.’

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