How’s your knowledge of Latin? Here’s a hint…the words in the title are the motto of Yale University (and at least three other universities). It could also be the motto for journalists everywhere. It means, Light and Truth. Journalism is a profession that shines it light into dark corners, exposing corruption and chicanery wherever it may be found. The metaphor can be “spotted” in the movie Spotlight about the Boston Globe newspaper’s expose of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church. And, of course, journalism is all about seeking the truth and reporting it.
In chapter one of his 1920 book, Liberty and the News, Walter Lippmann wrote about the centrality of truth to the journalistic ideal. He begins chapter one with an account of Benjamin Harris, editor of the first newspaper to be printed in the newly discovered land that would become the United States of America.
Volume 1, Number 1, of the first American newspaper was published in Boston on September 25, 1690. It was called Publick Occurrences. The second issue did not appear because the Governor and Council suppressed it. They found that Benjamin Harris, the editor, had printed “reflections of a very high nature.” Even today some of his reflections seem very high indeed. In his prospectus he had written:
That something may be done toward the Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next. Moreover, the Publisher of these Occurrences is willing to engage, that whereas, there are many False Reports, maliciously made, and spread among us, if any well-minded person will be at the pains to trace any such false Report, so far as to find out and Convict the First Raiser of it, he will in this Paper (unless just Advice be given to the contrary) expose the Name of such Person, as A malicious Raiser of a false Report. It is suppos’d that none will dislike this Proposal, but such as intend to be guilty of so villainous a Crime.
There you have it. At least as early as 1690 journalists were concerned about the veracity (accuracy/truth) of the information printed in their newspapers. It starts with the acknowledgement that “false reports” are everywhere, and only by eternal vigilance can we avoid falling for deception. The times and technology have changed, but the Spirit of Lying continues to haunt us.