Monday, May 10, 2010

Report the Truth (and Nothing But)

What is a journalist if he/she fails in the task of reporting only the truth? To answer my own question, that “journalist” would be a disgrace to the profession. The number one job of journalists has been and always will be to report accurately. As media critic Walter Lippmann famously said in (his 1920 collection of essays) Liberty and the News, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

While such a task may seem simple on the surface, we are now in the digital age, meaning many writers, particularly online bloggers, publish first and then fact check later, if at all. If journalists follow this method, the profession’s future looks bleak, as they would instantly fall to the level of the tens of millions of bloggers that already provide commentary and analysis on the Web with typically no accurate, original reporting. Even though bloggers may be growing in popularity in recent years, journalists are still the ones doing the hard-hitting, truthful reporting, and for the profession to survive the transformation to the online medium, this trend must continue.

To assist in attaining this vital level of factual reporting, journalists must always fact-check all material presented in an article before its publication. This includes verifying the spelling of names and calling the interviewee to verify quotes, among other things. When publishing a quote, also be sure to include the entire statement and do not cherry pick selected words and/or sentences that portray the source in a false light. If for some reason a mistake slips through the cracks and something non-factual is published, be sure to correct the record quickly and admit fault for the mistake.

In addition, always provide both sides a chance to be heard in a piece on a contentious issue or event. For example, if one were to write a story that documents and exposes a politician’s extramarital affair, be sure to at least give the politician a chance to respond to the allegations before publication.

Lastly, do not misrepresent. Avoid misleading headlines that appear to show guilt because all readers may simply view the headline and make an assumption about the article and not read it in its entirety. Take a look at this below example in which The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart exposes Fox News host Neil Cavuto for using misleading question mark titles.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Question Mark
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In this example, viewers may simply be flipping through the channels and see a misleading question mark graphic on the bottom of the screen (i.e., “Is The Liberal Media Helping To Fuel Terror?”) and assume that it is true. Such titles are misleading and should be avoided at all costs because, in the end, it is more important to be truthful than to employ attention-gathering headlines.

In the arena of truth telling, it is important for journalists to practice the Judeo-Christian ethical principle in which one should “love thy neighbor as yourself.” Journalists clearly would not want to be misrepresented or have lies told about them, so it is important for those in the profession to handle all news material carefully. It does not take much for a journalist, especially one at a popular publication, to ruin someone’s reputation, but before doing so, he/she must ensure that all content presented is accurate.

Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative should also be applied, as followers of this theory “act on the maxim which [they] will to become a universal law.” Nearly everyone could agree that lies, misrepresentations and other forms of unfairness should not exist in both journalism and society. Thus, journalists should stick to reporting the truth as if required by law.

As the ethical code of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) also dictates, the staple of the journalism profession is truth telling, and that is a facet that can never be compromised.

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