There’s been a lot of talk recently about journalistic integrity and I’ve been thinking a lot about our role – and the fact that sometimes I seem to be among very few people in my profession who seem to take seriously our responsibility.
Being a reporter can be really fun – covering events, meeting cute kids, seeing people in happy situations, telling the stories of those who do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do. I even enjoy (most of the time anyway) covering meetings and the like.
But, it is in investigative, in-depth pieces that I’ve felt I’ve always excelled. I love research (partially because my legal assistant background really helps with that); my mom used to tell me I should be a private detective. Finding the truth is a compelling process and I – perhaps naively – believe that’s one of the sacred responsibilities of a journalist.
But, those kinds of stories – well, all kinds of stories, depending on how you approach it – can mean a lot of work and time. It’s not always easy, particularly for someone on deadline, to spare what can be an hour (sometimes many more) on research; that can be compounded for those who work at a small paper and are tasked with a multitude of responsibilities – covering several beats, writing numerous stories each week, laying out the paper, taking and toning your own (and submitted) photos, editing copy. That doesn’t mean that it’s any less important to make sure you are correct in your facts.
I’m not talking about those mistakes we can all make – errors on a cutline or even a story. Those can happen, no matter how careful or how much you proof. We’re human, after all. I’m talking about those people who circumvent the truth, who either purposefully or through laziness mislead their readers. That not only does a disservice to those readers, but it makes all of us who put in the time, the effort and care about what we do look bad – it tarnishes a profession that, at it’s core, is important to the freedom of us all.
Unfortunately, there are lots of examples of this kind of practice, recent illustrations. From well-known, well-paid television reporters to the recent Rolling Stone debacle, these individuals pay lip service to these “mistakes.” And it’s insulting. As a writer who is serious about their product, one of the basics, perhaps the basic is corroboration. If it’s a news story and it’s not a known fact, the most junior reporter knows you’re supposed to check with independent sources. People lie, they misunderstand, they state things as fact when they’re speculating. It’s the writer’s job to cull through that and make sure they are presenting objective, truthful facts. Only then can the reader make a truly informed decision.
Real reporters don’t drop that standard because they have a “sympathetic” source. It’s like “off the record” – that means you don’t use it (unless you learn it from someone else on the record). Period. That’s why I won’t report something from an anonymous source unless i can corroborate it with an on the record source.
Maybe I’m just living in a fairytale land that’s not realistic, but journalistic ethics are important. And if you can’t truthfully say you have them you are not an asset – and any publication (yes, I mean you, Rolling Stone) that keeps employing you, knowing you would take those shortcuts doesn’t have credibility.
And that matters. At least to me.