What has Happened to Truth in Journalism?
From the Society of Professional Journalists -- Code of Ethics
Report it. Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
— Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
— Never plagiarize.
— Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
— Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
— Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
— Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
— Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
— Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
— Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.
Should Reporters Challenge Facts as Asserted?
Recently, one of The New York Times editors, Arthur Brisbane asked readers should journalists seek the truth behind the stories they cover. He wrote:
“I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”
My first and immediate reaction was: You have to ask? I had always thought that to be a reporter’s job. Indeed, we are not only reliant on reporters to give us full, complete, unbiased facts in their coverage but as a society have become conditioned to accept their reported stories as the truth. From where else are we to receive information on our world and its workings?
Bad enough that the source of news for most of us has become the point-of-view arm wrestling that passes for journalism on competing cable “news” networks; bad enough even the straight news is now delivered in a biased manner by anchors playing the role of a journalist complete with opinionated editorial remarks, despite their many near-hysterical claims to the contrary; bad enough the news we receive is filtered through the ideology of the news organization; bad enough news must now be entertainment… Now, editors of major news publications have to ask, “Should we be printing the truth?”
YES! Yes, yes and yes, Mr. Brisbane, you should certainly be presenting the truth and in case you’re unfamiliar with that word, here is the big question:
What is the Truth?
The answer lies in the facts, sir, nothing but the facts and all the facts.
Whatever happened to who, what, where, when and why? When did reporters forget that old maxim of the newsroom: if your mother says she loves you, check it out? Didn’t you know reporters should never take anything at face value?
Should reporters challenge facts asserted by newsmakers? Yes, they should. They have a responsibility, an obligation to do so. It is their job.
Unless you, Mr. Brisbane, are content that the New York Times and all other such publications become nothing more than a container for ad copy, then by all means, just paraphrase everything and everyone and print innocuous press releases verbatim without question or investigation.
But then, why would we need you?
“I am deeply interested in the progress and elevation of journalism, having spent my life in that profession, regarding it as a noble profession and one of unequaled importance for its influence upon the minds and morals of the people.” – Joseph Pulitzer
Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.
—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.
Facts in Context
In his article, Brisbane went on in a contemplative vein, mulling over what constitutes such dubious facts for a paragraph or two, then gave an example:
“... on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches "apologizing for America," a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the "post-truth" stage.”
Were Krugman actions as a reporter an example of good ethics when he challenged Romney’s statement, appears to be Brisbane’s question.
The answer is no. Paul Krugman is a columnist, writing opinion, not news (though these days, it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference) and as such is free to not only write whatever is on his mind but to tell us how he feels about it. It then behooves us to decide if Mr. Krugman’s opinion is worthy of being read, and to either agree or disagree.
A reporter, on the other hand, is supposed to give us the facts of a story, devoid of opinion.
In this case, that Mr. Romney’s said the President often apologizes for America is a fact. Romney is on the record using these very words. However, this is only Mr. Romney’s opinion and in itself, not necessarily a fact.
So here is where Mr. Brisbane’s question comes in. Should a reporter challenge Romney’s words and investigate their veracity? Is it enough to report what Mr. Romney said, or should the reporter check whether or not President Obama ever did apologize for America?
I did a thorough search and found not one instant where the President has ever used the word “apologize” in a speech about America, the nation’s foreign affairs or history.
This is called providing contextual facts – the background information needed to understand and reach an informed conclusion -- without which the reader may be misled. I’m willing to bet there are very few readers who will take the time to do such research on their own. Most will read the story and decide if Romney said it and the newspaper printed it, it must be true.
But it is not true. Any assertion that Obama has apologized for US actions rests on a personal interpretation of the President’s words – to put it kindly. (After all, a reporter doesn’t want to call Romney a liar – that would be an opinion.) What a reporter can and should do is insert a paragraph giving the context: President Obama has never used the word apologize in any speech about US policy. It is then up to the native intelligence of the reader to reach his own conclusions.
That is why we desperately need context. We want, no need the complete picture.
“Whenever people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.” – Thomas Jefferson
Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
— Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
— Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
— Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
— Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
— Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
And the Readers?
In following this mind-baffling story, I was somewhat heartened by the comments from readers:
"When did truth-telling and fact-checking become novel ideas?"
"This post from NYT Public Editor should be put on the wall of a museum to explain contemporary US journalism."
"Is the NY Times kidding? Are they really asking people if they should act like journalists or not. What a disaster."
"I hope you can help me, Mr. Brisbane, because I'm an editor, currently unemployed: is fecklessness now a job requirement?"
“…the Times should behave like an advocate for the readers, rather than a stenographer to politicians.”
So I was not alone in assuming the newspapers already did do some serious fact checking before going to print. What a revelation and a disillusionment to find out not only did they not, but an editor, none the less, asks if they should. (Where is Bob Woodward when you need him?)
What is so revealing about Brisbane’s question is that he does not understand, as we will find in his subsequent clarifications?
"What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question."—media blog JimRomenesko.com
"My inquiry related to whether the Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut 'facts' that are offered by newsmakers when those 'facts' are in question. I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one." – NY Times website
Wrong again, Mr. Brisbane. This is not a hard question, at least from the readers’ perspective. We don’t care about the thin-line differences between weaseling and out and out lies. We want journalists to limit the ability of politicians and others to make dubious statements (read falsehoods) and get away with it. Most of us did not understand this wasn’t the newspaper’s mission in the first place.
Yet to be fair, inn some aspects we the readers are equally to blame. How many of us read the full spectrum of sources required to have a comprehensive view of our society necessary in these ideologically-themed-news-provider days? Don’t most of us watch or read only those that tell us what we want to hear, ignoring the rest as “wrong” and “biased?” Do we question? Do we demand truth, or simply join the club, whichever club best reflects our prejudices and preconceptions? Many of us don’t want the truth, couldn’t handle it if it landed in our laps.
But let’s visit utopia and say the media has changed and gives us the truth in the form of facts, full facts and only facts, doing away with the editorial teams that follow each story, telling us what to think. Why then, the media -- press and electronic -- would be treating us as what we are: full participants in the process rather than spectators – informed, discerning and intelligent enough to come to our own conclusions.
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice.
Sounds Like Paradise. Why is Paradise Lost?
Being one who does watch a wide variety of “news” programs, who searches out journals of all points of view on the net, who weighs, considers and thinks beyond what I’m spoon-fed, I have become dubious of all news. I am a paranoid, seeing propaganda behind every word.
It shouldn’t be so. I should expect certain neutrality and an obsession with the truth proven through facts from my news sources. I shouldn’t have to go to so many sources to get the full picture. I shouldn’t have to research beyond the story to find the truth.
“He said, she said” doesn’t cut the mustard, Mr. Brisbane. Simply reporting the words without context is irresponsible journalism at its worst. Never mind such practices are common place; the trust placed in your profession by the society you serve demands better.
Where do such shiftless journalistic practices take us? Think of the fifties, Mr. Brisbane, and the McCarthy era, when a blind-eyed press printed his accusations about “card-carrying communists” with no checking of the facts behind such charges. Yes, McCarthy did say so-and-so was a threat to the nation – his saying so was a fact; what he said was most often not. Your profession dutifully disseminated his lies and merely ran the accused’s denials, and thereby aided and abetted in the ruin of hundreds of lives based on nothing more than innuendo and out-and-out falsehoods.
Damn right journalists should challenge the words spoken by public figures!
And we the readers, or at least those of us with intelligence enough to want the truth (the whole truth and nothing but the truth) should rise up in anger at such a question, demanding you do the job you’re paid to do, that you should have been doing all along.
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.” -- Oscar Wilde
Next on this subject: Freedom of the Press: a mortally wounded myth?
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