News Values

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."

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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