Truth and Journalism

25 Feb

“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.”

As an aspiring journalist, the word truth evokes a pretty strong emotional response in my mind. For me, it’s hard to separate journalism from truth, because I think without truth, journalism is nothing. There are some people who would be perfectly content to print untrue things as long as it helped the ratings and made them an extra buck–tabloids do it all the time and almost always get away with it, but I think journalism is, and should be, held to a higher standard. Simply passing on rumors is not journalism.

Journalism is a different breed of media. When tabloids publish something untrue, and it’s confirmed as such, people just
shrug their shoulders and think….”well, it is just a tabloid.” But when a journalist does the same thing, their entire career can put in jeopardy. One example that immediately comes to mind is what has come to be known as “Rathergate”. To make a long story short, in 2004, Dan Rather did a news segment on  George W. Bush, based on documents that claimed he had gotten out of military service in Vietnam because of his family’s connection in the government. Withing hours, the legitimacy of the documents were put into question on the blogosphere, and Rather ended up having to retract the story, make a public apology and was, in essence, pushed out of CBS because his credibility had been compromised.

Since the Rathergate incident, CBS has tried to cover their tracks stating that the information in the documents were correct even if the actual papers were forged. The problem is, the newscast presented it as fact even after their documents were questioned. They did a poor job addressing the questions that faced their story–choosing to safe face rather than admit they may have received misinformation.

Here’s an article that’s example of them trying to save face–an article that frankly makes me sad for CBS. They refuse to admit they may have been wrong. 

Now finding the truth is not always easy, and it’s almost always expensive, and time consuming. For these reasons, it is understandable that mistakes are likely to be made from time to time. Sometimes situations beyond  the control of journalists or their editors and publishers may come into play, and misinformation will inevitably leak out. However, this should not be an excuse for lazy reporting. It’s a journalist’s duty to seek out every possible source they can before publishing a story. If it is revealed later that misinformation was given, the journalist should be up front and honest about it, and explain to the public why their story had faults. This article from an online paper called The Guardian talks in depth about how finding the truth is a collabortive effort between news consumers and the news media–that the whole truth is found when consumers hold journalists to high standards, but also understand that mistakes will be made. It’s a good read.  Click here to read it.

Adding on to the point of a collaborative truth-finding process, I think it’s important to note that today’s definition of truth has been somewhat skewed. Society has become increasingly skeptical of the news media and there is a much wider political divide between conservatives and liberals.  This has made truth-reporting very difficult for many journalists. Last year Anderson Cooper was criticized for calling Hosni Mumbarak a “liar” in a newscast after the then Egyptian president was reported to have made false remarks in a public setting. Cooper’s critics claimed he was taking sides in the Egyptian revolution. However, others rushed to his aid, claiming that was Mumbarak said, was a lie, which would therefore make him a liar, a fact that even Coopers critics could not deny. Perhaps the word “liar” seemed too much like a personal attack on a once strong ally of the United States, but it would seem that Cooper was the hero in this story for denouncing and exposing lies made by a person in power. After all isn’t  that what journalism is all about? Aren’t we supposed to watch out for those without a voice, and keep those in power honest?

I’ll let you guys decide what you think about Anderson Cooper. Here’s the original article criticizing him in the LA Times…and the article in Salon that rushed to his rescue

As journalists, it is our duty to find the truth and to report it to the public. Truth is the backbone of journalism, and the reason that news organizations stay in business. Journalists are trusted to give the truth, and that’s a sacred trust that should always be respect and held with the utmost esteem.





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