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The Legal and Ethical Limitations of Factual Misrepresentation

Geoffrey Cowan
The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
Vol. 560, The Future of Fact (Nov., 1998), pp. 155-164
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1048983
Page Count: 10
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The Legal and Ethical Limitations of Factual Misrepresentation
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Abstract

Using examples from journalism, nonfiction books, theater, television, and film, this article examines the ways in which truth has been distorted in the name of storytelling. It briefly reviews the law (and the limits of the law) that governs such distortions and then offers some possible ethical guidelines. There is, in the author's view, an unwritten contract between the writer (as well as the editor, publisher, producer, and distributor) and the audience. Although some aspects of that contract are spelled out in the law, the First Amendment dictates that most of its provisions rely on the ethical sensibilities of the participants. A reasonable approach, it is argued, would be based on a continuum, calling for more accuracy and balance for the daily news media; somewhat less for columnists, journals of opinion, and docudramas that deal with contemporary events; and less still for historical dramas and novels based on fact.

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