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Semiotic evidence offers new lens to view journalistic truth

Author  :  LIU LIGANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2022-06-01

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the role of journalistic truth in building global scenarios has become increasingly prominent. Viewing and interpreting journalistic truth remains a focus of attention in academia.

Defining news

In the Chinese and foreign history of journalism, many definitions were offered for the term “news.” In China, news was largely defined by academia. Xu Baohuang, who is known as the father of the Chinese press, said that news refers to latest facts noticed by most readers; Lu Dingyi, founder of Chinese proletarian journalism, argued that news denotes reports of facts which occurred recently; and Fan Changjiang, a pioneer of Chinese journalism, defined news as important facts that the broad masses want to know, should know, and don’t know.

In foreign countries, as modern Western journalism was generated in business activities, definitions of news in the West have strong commercial attributes. For example, in the 1970s, John Bogart, then editorial director of New York-based newspaper The Sun, famously said, “When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.” Most definitions of news in the Western press are closely related to interestingness, novelty, and unusualness.

Obviously, news is differently defined in China and the West. To quote American anthropologist Clifford Geertz when he commented on culture, “a web of meaning” that people create through symbolic interaction underlies both Chinese and Western definitions of news. After unravelling each node on the web of meaning, it will be not difficult to discover so-called “facts” that were twined within.

However, every fact behind any journalistic truth needs to be verified by evidence. According to the semiotic evidence theory, the basic modes of human cultural memory and verification include “listening” (oral evidence), “seeing” (pictorial evidence or real evidence), and “writing” (documentary evidence). The three types of evidence are, in essence, all evidential symbols. Each with unique advantages, they are interrelated and help express “factum probandum,” or the possible “truth.”

According to Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the founders of semiotics, semiotics is a triadic model which describes the relationship between the sign/representatum that represents something, the object, which it stands for or represents, and the interpretant, the possible meaning or the sense made of the representatum. Because Chinese and foreign journalism use different frameworks, or interpretants, to explain facts, evidential symbols (representatums) to report the facts (objects) also vary in the two communities.

News reporting is a process of symbolization, which necessarily results in lopsided symbols. The lopsidedness will inevitably highlight some parts—while overshadowing others. For example, in coverage of international events, Chinese and Western press must differ in reporting the same significant “fact.” Some media outlets stress the peculiarity of the fact, some underline its importance, while some distort it.

News symbolization

Within the semiotic evidence theory, every fact has the dual attributes of ineffability and event-ness to human beings. Ineffability refers to the impossibility of facts to express themselves and explain other facts meaningfully. Only through symbols, particularly linguistic and textual symbols, can the value and meaning of facts be self-explanatory. Event-ness means that any fact is a changing event or process of movement. As an event, each fact has a beginning and an end, is fleeting, and can only be understood and retained by means of semiotic memories. Therefore, renowned semiotician Henry Yi-heng Zhao noted, facts that are not symbolized, coded, and signified, basically do not exist in the human world.

Now that symbolization is the sole way for facts to be understood, there is unavoidably the issue of the correlation between facts (objects) and symbols (representatums). Meng Hua, a professor of semiotics at the Ocean University of China, classified facts into original facts, which are ineffable, initial, and unprocessed, and coded facts that are symbolized and processed.

To humanity, there are no original facts. All we know are coded facts. In terms of news reportage, the information reported is technically symbolized, coded facts. Because they have been symbolized, coded facts have their own names and are thus reportable. All facts that are not symbolized, or not deciphered, interpreted, and understood despite some signs, are original facts. Although news reports try to approach original facts, it is quite difficult to reach them.

When considering semiotic evidence, original facts are usually absent or not present. Facts that have happened, in particular, can only exist as coded facts. In Meng’s opinion, once we theoretically shelve original facts, what we pay attention to are no longer original facts behind evidential symbols, but how coded facts approximate and present original facts.

Regarding journalistic truth, facts in news are basically all coded facts. To further apply semiotics, news approaches original facts through the coded facts signified by evidential symbols. “Talking with facts,” as we often hear, is actually, talking with evidential symbols. As to whether news represents the truth, it is vital to examine the degree of correlation between original facts and coded facts, as well as the extent of complementarity between evidential symbols that comprise coded facts.

If we say a piece of news gets to the truth, it practically means related evidential symbols, elements of the news, are highly complementary with each other, making original facts and coded facts strongly correlated, and the whole news narrative discourse—manifested by evidential symbols—is really true.

In common perceptual experiences, true news narrative discourse must have a true story behind it. This is also why the complementarity between evidential symbols works in news narrative discourse.

Inter-evidentiality, in the semiotic evidence theory, means the complementarity of merits and demerits between evidential symbols. Each evidential symbol is correlated to authenticity, and the way of correlation varies from symbol to symbol. Each evidential symbol has its own limitations and needs to be supplemented by other symbols. The way of correlating with authenticity and inter-evidentiality reveal the symbolic nature of evidence for clarifying journalistic truth.

‘Truth’ in new media age

When reporting news, interviews conducted by journalists will produce oral evidence; through observation and photography, they create real evidence or pictorial evidence; and their writings bring into being textual or documentary evidence. The three types of evidence in the semiotic evidence theory are in triadic relations of mutual verification.

This triadic model compensates for limitations of a single evidential symbol, leading us to take for granted that what is reported in news is the truth. If we have an idea of semiotic evidence, we will warily question: “is the fact in the news report really the absent fact [original fact]?” Admittedly, facticity is the primary feature of news, but facts cannot speak for themselves. They can only evidence their own existence through symbols.

Therefore, the authenticity we sense does not necessarily point to the truth. The so-called truth in news reports usually results from complementation of merits between evidential symbols. The truth is generated in a dynamic process, which is fully reflected in news reportage. Many reports reproduce the cause and effect of events.

Conversely, however, what many news reports unfold are no more than mediating evidential symbols when coded facts approach original facts. In most cases, news reports can only approximate original facts, yet display coded facts instead. Nonetheless, this cannot prevent us from pursuing journalistic truth. Positioning the object signified by journalistic truth on original facts is of great referential value. Original facts are ideal in the journalistic pursuit of the truth, but they can draw the degree of authenticity of reported news closer to the truth.

In the new media context, questioning and pursuing journalistic truth is particularly important, necessary, and urgent. Zeng Qingxiang, a research fellow from the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that news narrative discourse evolves in the new media context with blurring boundaries. Indeed, everyone in the new media era can be an anchor, a short video director, and a forum journalist. Producers of evidential symbols (with new media language as the agent) are a mixed lot, so the symbols produced by professional journalists may easily be eclipsed amid the cacophony.

This requires the audience to be more capable of distinguishing true evidential symbols from false ones and calls for more educational work on media literacy. Traditionally, news is produced by professional journalists and professional editors who play the gatekeeping role, imposing few requirements on the public’s media literacy. However, things have changed dramatically in the new media age. Tremendous quantities of news have been produced by non-professional journalists. Whether the evidential symbols they exhibit signify coded facts requires the audience to determine using their own media literacy.

Furthermore, in the uncertain international situation, how the audience can tell whether varied evidential symbols signify the truth has become a more complicated issue. To enhance the audience’s media literacy, it is especially urgent to reexamine journalistic truth using the semiotic evidence methodology.


Liu Ligang is an associate professor from the School of Journalism and Communication at Sichuan International Studies University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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