The Common Good
September-October 2003

News Values

by Molly Marsh | September-October 2003

What will it take for us to trust the press?

The series of journalistic screw-ups at The New York Times this spring was only the most high-profile case of reporters and editors run amok. Certainly other newspapers and magazines have suffered the consequences of unethical reporters and lazy editors. But the fictionalized reporting and the mismanagement of journalists were astounding for a newspaper considered the world's standard.

The good news is that the debacle forced The Times and other newsrooms to pay attention to what's slipping through their fingers: their credibility. Because news organizations know media reform has to come from the inside, their campaign to regain the public trust has engendered a healthy dose of self-policing: Newspapers are more serious about fact-checking articles, and freelancers' or researchers' contributions to stories are acknowledged, either in double bylines or at the end of stories. Where printed corrections to stories may have sufficed pre-Jayson Blair, some editors have gone beyond that: "Sharing the inner workings of how stories get edited is something that I generally prefer not to speak about publicly," wrote Santa Cruz Sentinel editor Tom Honig, after his newspaper published its third front-page correction of a story, "but doing so now is important in order for us to restore our credibility."

Editors, reporters, and newsroom execs are talking about accuracy and fairness, and they've been admonished by ethicists such as Michael Josephson, who told a group of editors at a conference in June to remember the newspaper's role as watchdog and community conscience. "Those are why we give you constitutional protection," he said. "If you tolerate or spawn lying...you can't accomplish these missions."

While journalists and editors have been re-educating themselves on the basics of their craft, we who are bewildered about who we can trust could also use a refresher on the role of journalism and what we should expect from the news media. After all, if we know what we should expect, we can try to make it better.

So what should we find when we open up our daily newspapers and start reading? For starters, we should expect what we're reading to be accurate, say veteran journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their "Citizens Bill of Rights" in The Elements of Journalism. Whether a publication advocates for a particular position or not, we should know that facts have been gathered, checked, and re-checked, that people relevant to the story have been consulted and interviewed, and that opposing positions are accounted for, or at least acknowledged, so that an article or column is presented with intellectual fairness.

We should also expect that journalists' first loyalty is to readers, not to folks on the zoning commission, the local business council, or the political party in power. Reporters should maintain an independence from those they cover, and they should monitor power with all the aggressiveness the First Amendment allows them, especially when they speak for those who have little or no power.

Obviously, journalists fall short of these goals—sometimes spectacularly. This doesn't excuse lying, laziness, lapses in judgment, or being enamored with power—their own or someone else's. But it does mean, as citizens and readers, that when something's inaccurate, we can point it out. Call the reporter or editor involved in the story, or write a constructive (and polite) letter to the editor. Encourage publications that don't have ombudsmen to hire one. Inquire about whether your local newspaper has an advisory board on which citizens can participate—as many do. Find forums for feedback, whether it's the newspaper's Web site, community list serves, or a letters-to-the-editor section.

The media industry is a fair target for criticism—and ripe for activism. Follow the work of media watchdog groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and media education organizations such as Citizens for Media Literacy; internal debates about the craft of journalism in publications such as Columbia Journalism Review and Editor & Publisher; and the activities of journalism reform groups such as the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

A vigorous press is the sign of a vigorous democracy. So are vigorous readers.

—Molly Marsh

Molly Marsh is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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