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News, Truth and Verification in Egypt and the US

February 20, 2015

Answering questions after my talk Jan. 29 at the University of Cincinnati, I got onto the topic of truth, culture,  and  verification.

Answering questions after my talk Jan. 29 at the University of Cincinnati, I got onto the topic of truth, culture, and verification. Photo: Madison Schultz.

As more and more people get their news from digital media, including social media, many question the reliability of these new sources of news, as opposed to newspapers and television news. Are truth and verifiability disappearing from the news and, if so, does it matter?

I addressed this during a public lecture recently at the University of Cincinnati entitled “Toward an Anthropology of New Media.”

I suggested that there were at least five crucial problems facing scholarship on new media, and described what I saw as anthropology’s contributions to dealing with these problems.

During the Question and Answer period after the talk, an archaeology colleague asked me about whether one of the biggest problems with new media wasn’t the inability of news consumers to verify, and thus rely on, the news they read in their myriad on-line sources.

I responded:

First, there is very little evidence that people ever verify the news. Rather, they tend to decide whether or not the news is true and reliable, based on

  1. Their relationship to the news source (whether the news is expressed in language they find reassuring, whether or not it is one they visit frequently, how long they have received their news from that source, etc.), and
  2. The degree to which the news agrees with what they already know (i.e. believe) to be true.

As a result, it is usually better to treat news as a form of expressive culture, one of those cultural sites where we (as a society) “show ourselves to ourselves.”

Second, if we treat news in this way, as expressive culture, then “truth” becomes not a matter of correspondence with an objective reality “out there” but a mode of social agreement.

News & Truth

I recently wrote an article on “news” for the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Anthropology in which I put it thus:

As a discursive genre, news can be characterized as timely, relevant, and true. How each of these elements is realized in specific news stories is subject to contextual frames, ranging from the social networks in which news reporters are embedded, to local journalistic conventions, to governmental regulation, to sociotechnical constraints of the media used to circulate news (newspapers, radio, television, Internet). The meanings of timeliness, relevance and truth in news vary across cultural boundaries, but also over time within particular societies.

Truthfulness, I assert (it’s an assertion because one doesn’t argue in encyclopedias, one asserts one’s position as authoritative fact):

is a defining characteristic of news discourse. While truth is often identified by journalists as a correspondence between facts reported and a corresponding objective reality, social scientists have generally found it more accurate to define truth in newsmaking as an agreement among participants in the news process. Truth, in the social practice of newsmamking, is less about facts than it is the correspondence of some arrangement of facts to what some group of people believe about the world. For journalists, truth thus generally involves representing the world in a way that creates agreement among many of those among whom these representations circulates; news consumers, in turn, usually judge the reliability of news on the basis of how well it fits with what they already believe to be true about the world.

Truth Claims & Common Senses

In responding to my interlocutor at the University of Cincinnati, I used the example of the claim that the US put the Muslim Brotherhood in power.

This is, as I have described before (here and here) a noncontroversial claim in Egypt. It is perfectly legitimate in the Arabic press, not only in Egypt itself but in many regional newspapers, to claim that President Morsi and his associates were put into power by the United States. One does not have to source the assertion because it falls into that realm of stuff everybody knows.

What I failed to do in my talk was offer a counterexample in the US. This is always dangerous, as it tends to exoticize others. We have real news, reliable news. They have mythologized news.

The obvious counterexample is the US news media’s assertion that Iran is one of, if not the most dangerous enemy to the United States. This is a noncontroversial claim in the US. It is perfectly legitimate in the American press to assert that Iran is a dangerous threat to world peace and US national interests in particular. One does not have to source the assertion because it falls into that realm of stuff everybody knows.

But its not verifiable. In 1979, an Iranian revolutionary group seized American hostages and held them for over a year, ostensibly to punish the US for hosting deposed Shah Pahlavi and to prevent the US from staging a coup to return him to power, as happened in 1953.

Since then, Iran has not done anything concretely harmful to the US except say bad things about us and our “friends” in the region. They may have been secretly behind the Lebanon hostage crisis (through intermediaries like Hezbollah), although they helped us broker the hostage release, they may support Hezbollah terrorism (they claim that they only support its political party, which provides the Shi’a majority its long-denied voice in the government and protected Shi’a during the Israeli occupation when the government did nothing) or other terrorist groups, they may have an aggressive nuclear weapons program of which  no team of UN inspectors has ever been able to find evidence.

All these claims are confidently asserted by various actors in the US. When one asks for verification, publicly available reports cited by these actors never actually turn out to provide real evidence, they simply cite earlier published assertions. And, of course, they cite secret information possessed by by intelligence agencies–the same ones whose claims that WMDs would be found in Iraq cost the US, and the Iraqi people, so dearly (Beeman 2011, Butt 2014, Porter 2014). Where is the verification?

My point here is not that Iran is not a dangerous enemy but that such an assertion can be made in US journalism without verification, just as assertions that the US put Morsi and the Brotherhood in power can be made in Egypt without the need to verify.

Verification is only necessary in journalism for statements that contradict the culturally-constituted common sense world view that adheres among a particular people.

And that is why truth and verification are not one of the problems I see facing scholarship of new media. The problem of how truth is constituted through practices of objective journalism is one of the oldest problems in media studies (and the topic of one of my earliest, most cited papers (Peterson 2001))


Beeman, William O. 2011. Debunking the Top Seven Myths on Iran’s Middle East Policies. New American Media May 21.

Beeman, William O. 2011. No Evidence of an Iranian Bomb, Yet the Attacks on Iran Continue. New American Media Jun. 03.

Butt, Yousaf. 2014. Eight Ways You’re Wrong About Iran’s Nuclear ProgramThe National Intyerest, January 17

Peterson, Mark Allen. Forthcoming. News. International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Wiley-Blackwell.

Peterson, Mark Allen (2001) Getting to the story: Unwriteable discourse and interpretive practice in American journalism.
Anthropological Quarterly 74: 201-211.

Porter, Gareth. 2014. Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. Just World Books.

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