They say the truth hurts – well, it’s given me a headache…

Published 31 January 2012 / By Rob McNeil

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Unlike most of the clever folks swanning around the corridors of COMPAS, I am not an academic, so the mind-bending vocabulary wielded by those with a PhD can mean I exit conversations feeling a little like I have been smacked around the head with a cricket bat.

But, while the language is something that one does get used to, as an ex-journalist I do wonder sometimes whether I’ll ever get used to the lack of easy answers about migration. The problem, it seems, is related to one of those cricket bat-swinging academic words – epistemology – the nature of truth.

The circle of truth
12 years ago, as the news editor of a small newspaper, I had a little spiel that I would give to trainee reporters to encourage them to write stories that gave a balanced picture of events. It conceptualised ‘truth’ as a circular target and the reporter’s objective was to write stories that hit as close to the centre of the target – which, in simple terms, meant they were an equal distance from all individual perspectives – as possible.

But sometimes – and migration is a good example of this – truth is rather more complex and difficult to articulate than that, and more often than not the difficulty in getting to the truth relates to whether the questions you are asking relate to the answers people want to hear.

This was set in sharp relief for me in early January when two major reports about the relationship between immigration on unemployment – which appeared, superficially, at least, to directly contradict one another – crashed into one another on the same day.

The Migration Observatory did an analysis of these reports, from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), which you can read here.

We concluded that the two reports were both valid, did not contradict each other and, in their own limited ways, reflected an arguably ‘true’ picture, because each was answering a different question: ‘do migrants affect the employment rate of UK-born people?’ (MAC) and ‘do migrants increase unemployment claims?’ (NIESR).

Both reports were covered widely in the press and were generally under unequivocal headlines like: Immigrants do take British jobs, or Immigration does not cause unemployment .

Unsurprisingly, our assessment of the complexities of different ways of measuring the link between (un)employment and immigration didn’t get the same sort of media coverage as the reports. This means that around the country people sat and read newspaper stories – with punchy comments from experts, and a tone decided upon by journalists and editors – and decided what they believed.

People naturally want to know ‘the truth’ and they tend to draw a very distinct line between ‘truth’ and it’s opposite – a lie. This means that, in a circumstance like this, many people will have found themselves having to decide which of these stories they believe to be true, and which they believe to be a lie – not realising that it is possible for apparently contradictory stories to both be true.

The journalistic dilemma
It uncovers a fundamental conflict in modern British journalism. A short, readable and easily understood article needs to be clear, and needs to be presented in a way that doesn’t alienate your reader. This means that presenting a comprehensive analysis of a complicated story is not always possible, but that doesn’t stop a story from being important, and needing to be covered.

This then means that newspapers (and, of course other media) have to select the elements that they consider are relevant for their readers, and leave out the bits that aren’t, which essentially means that some truths become “more equal than others.”

Journalists often have a reputation for playing fast and loose with the truth, but sometimes the truth is very complicated, and has more to do with what you believe than with unequivocal empirical data. Hopefully, over time the Migration Observatory might help raise the quality of debate around immigration in the UK and move news providers away from starkly black and white interpretations of data, but ‘truth’ will always be a very hard target to hit.