Along the Tracks

Friday, June 24, 2005

The sinking standards of journalism

A letter to the editor of the Northwest Signal recently challenged my right to be critical of journalism in Ohio (and by extension the wider journalism community). In my original column, I had stated my disappointment in the state's journalists for failing to uncover months ago the problems in Bureau of Workers Compensation investments which were all there in plain sight - public record. Nobody wants to do the old-fashioned legwork to serve as watchdogs on government officials.

My critic pointed out I am a journalist as well (which I admitted in the column) and therefore should take my own advice before criticizing others. I like to think I do the research and "legwork" for the projects I choose, and always have preached the good news of good journalism during my many years in newsroom leadership. Unfortunately, the industry is becoming so tarnished - by high-profile mud-wallowing coupled with low-profile errors, inconsistencies and incomplete efforts in the thousands of local newspapers, radio stations and TV outlets around the country - any public statement on ethical reform in journalism is viewed with skepticism.

That's a real shame.

Hiawatha Bray has boldly challenged recent comments by Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild - journalism's biggest union. Foley apparently attempted to spotlight tendencies to "target" individual journalists who make grievous ethical errors rather than keeping the focus broader "reform" of the industry, which to her means rolling back ownership consolidation. Her choice of parallels created a firestorm (transcription from video courtesy of Bray):

Journalists, by the way, are just being targeted, ah, verbally or, ah, or, ah, politically. They're also being targeted for real. Um…in places like Iraq. And and, ah, what outrages me as a representative of journalists is that there's not more outrage about the number, and the brutality, and the cavalier nature of the U.S. military toward the killing of journalists in Iraq. I think it's just a scandal.And it's not just US journalists, either, by the way. They target and kill, ah, journalists from other countries, particularly Arab countries like Al -, like Arab news services like Al-Jazeera, for example. They actually target them and blow up their studios, ah, with impunity … and, ah, this is all part of a culture that it's okay to blame the individual journalists and it just takes the heat off these media, ah, conglomerates who are actually at the heart of the problem.

We all may agree or disagree about the accusation presented by Foley. However, it is pretty clearly an accusation. People are free to make any accusation they like - this debate isn't about "freedom of speech," as Foley herself and so many of her defenders claim. It's about responsibility as a journalist. When a journalist speaks on a subject in public (rather than in a private conversation), the journalist enjoys a mantle of authority and trust which is supposed to be worn by all members of the profession. This mantle flows from an assumed loyalty to the ethics, codes and guidelines which the profession has built and promoted in its long history. Among the highest of these requirements is the need for proof, facts, evidence to back up what is presented to others. Journalists offering opinion commentary are free to state what they think, but they do not escape from the need to base their conclusions on facts - facts which are presented as part of the argument.

Nearly all of the recent scandals which have so damaged the already-fragile trust the American public held for journalists involve a failure to properly acquire facts, present facts and draw conclusions from facts. The public rightly wonders why journalists should be recognized as special authorities on any subject when their standards for providing conclusions appear to be no better than the gossipy neighbor down the street. This, as is clear from Foley's "apology," and even more obvious in the Guild's previous counterattack, is something which continues to evade the comprehension of so many high-profile journalists and spokespeople for the industry.

A journalist doesn't just have speech rights; he or she also has responsibilities which, when met, uphold the profession as a worthy, indispensable element of society.

However, when those standards are not met - for example, when the leader of an organization of journalists makes an accusation of murder against the sons, daughters, husbands, brothers, sisters or parents of the public which hears the comments without any effort to supply the high standards of proof equal to the claim - journalists seem petty, self-serving, lazy and vindictive.

These are tough times for traditional journalists, precisely because they are tossing aside their traditions.

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