As we write this, the Brenda Starr comic strip is featuring an Internet-rumormonger-turned-journalist named Ratt Sludge. Like most of her real-life counterparts, our high-minded heroine is appalled at the way gossip now masquerades as reporting, and the pursuit of circulation and ratings these days trumps the pursuit of truth.
Brenda Starr has a point. Americans have plenty to be worried about as journalistic irresponsibility has grabbed headlines on the front pages, stimulated self-flagellation and self-righteousness on the editorial pages, and, yes, spawned satire on the comic pages.
- The Cincinnati Enquirer in June published a front-page apology to Chiquita Brands because one of its reporters had allegedly stolen thousands of messages from the banana firm's voice-mail system.
- CNN and Time, also in June, conceded they did not have adequate proof to back up a lengthy report alleging that the U.S. military had used deadly sarin nerve gas to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War. Correspondent Peter Arnett got his hands slapped. Two producers got fired.
- The Boston Globe, earlier this year, apologized after one of its most popular columnists admitted to having fictionalized people and quotes.
- The New Republic owned up to multiple fabrications and fantasies on the part of a young hotshot writer.
One such trespass might be the result of an individual, irresponsible, rogue reporter. But this epidemic of journalistic felonies (violation of privacy, fraud, unsubstantiated allegations) is evidence of something bigger: The practice of reporting the news has lost its moorings in telling the truth, plainly and simply.
Principles under assault
In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) overhauled its ethics statement, anchoring the practice of newsgathering to four principles: Seek the truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; and be accountable.
Unfortunately, all four of these principles are under assault in new ways. The growing trend of journalistic commentary is undermining the time-tested role of the media in reporting accurately and truthfully. Several months ago, the Project for Excellence in Journalism surveyed coverage of the White House intern scandal, finding that nearly half of what newspapers published in the first week of the scandal was commentary. In the public's consciousness, journalists, both print and broadcast, are slightly more credible than used-car salesmen. News commentary sells a point of view. But commentary is all too often seeping into straight news coverage. The coverage of Monicagate demonstrates how far the news media have detoured not only into commentary but speculation.
The principle of minimizing harm is a refreshingly honest admission that too many individuals caught in the headlights of the news media end up as road kill. In journalism school, educators drill many an aphorism into students' minds, including their mission "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." But in the public's mind, journalism has moved from afflicting the comfortable to afflicting anything in its path.
The SPJ code says, "Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance." Unless journalists make allowances for the inherently intrusive nature of newsgathering, they are likely to face yet greater public hostility. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), at the urging of the Screen Actors Guild, are sponsoring legislation that would make it a federal offense for the "menacing pursuit" of a celebrity or a news subject. Though such a law would be practically unenforceable, it would have a chilling effect, exposing much legitimate newsgathering to costly civil litigation.
The principles of independent action and accountability must go hand in hand. American journalism has an honorable tradition of independence, but accountability has only infrequently been a strength. With the recent apologies by the national press, news media accountability has taken a small step forward. But accountability means much more than openly correcting mistakes. Full accountability requires a new level of transparency and openness about the process of newsgathering.
Journalism and morality
Increased competition in journalism, brought about by the timeliness of cable news and Internet technology combined with shifting consumer desires, has changed the professional environment for journalists from public service to self-service. Traditional journalistic values have suffered as Internet technology has handed a megaphone to unaccredited and unaccountable gossip merchants.
How can journalists reconnect their historic standards with the contemporary practice of reporting? Looking across more than two hundred years of journalism in North America, it is clear that the best journalists and journalism not only respect the absolute truth of divine revelation, but also terrestrial truth, methodically and painstakingly discovered.
Neil Reynolds, editor of the recently redesigned and refurbished Ottawa Citizen, said a newspaper is "a daily journal of moral conduct." Speaking at a faith and media conference, sponsored by Christian Week in June, Reynolds observed that a newspaper is "a vehicle for parables about people and how they make moral decisions." Sometimes these parables concern the media themselves. Until journalists revive the long-forgotten moral dimension implicit in each reporting task they undertake, more scandals, more mistakes, and more fabrications are certain to occur—and citizens will be deprived of the careful chronicling of the moral odyssey of our society.
It would be a mistake to tar all news media alike. In their best moments, journalists are mission-minded people. But when personal ambition, prejudice, or carelessness get in the way, grotesque mistakes are made. Each issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, for example, not only casts darts at error but crowns with laurels the excellent efforts of the nation's reporters and editors. For Christians, neither reactionary condemnation of the news media nor withdrawal from media interaction are adequate responses.
The First Amendment providentially intertwines freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Undergirding these twin freedoms is fear of oppression and a love of truth. Truth indeed is the best defense against demagoguery.
From the founding vision of Billy Graham, CHRISTIANITY TODAY has approached journalism both as a ministry and as a mission field. We aim for excellence in truth-telling as a service to all readers and an example to other journalists. Trustworthiness, fairness, truthfulness, respect, and impartiality are some of the journalistic values we lift up out of our commitment to evangelical truth and charity.
But like all other journalists, we struggle with issues that affect fairness and accuracy. We struggle with independence, being only too aware that at times reporting on advertisers has removed money from the paychecks of our colleagues in advertising sales. We struggle with the difficulties of reporting thoroughly, hampered by the limits of staff, budget, and editorial deadlines. Still, we look to our mission of reporting truthfully on the Christian world and try to surmount these obstacles.
In an era when major metropolitan dailies are trimming their foreign bureaus, a magazine of much smaller scale must rely on reports from trusted friends around the globe. We build our reputation on their trustworthiness—and on the rare occasions they don't get the story right, we wince and say we're sorry.
In an effort to encourage staff accountability and guard against error, we have instituted careful procedural review of pending articles, which becomes more rigorous and intensive as a story's potential for controversy or harm rises. Our news editors check bad news stories about fellow Christians against a set of criteria—none of which has to do with the juiciness or entertainment value of the material. Instead, we examine the national prominence of the figure being reported on, the certainty of his or her malfeasance, the potential for public harm if the matter is not reported, and so forth. People acting like jerks, creeps, and blockheads do not qualify for our attention. Crooks and con artists do.
One reason such bad news stories do not occupy more of our news space is that we function with a limited staff: only three in-house editors and one reporter on a part-time stipend are devoted to news. None of us has much time to go fishing for scandal. Often we must wait till such issues become a matter of record.
Take our reporting of financial scandals, for example. In the past 12 months, we have covered five stories of Christians who solicited investments from fellow believers and ended up deep in debt and shamefaced in court. In each case, we waited to report until formal charges were filed, indictments were handed down, or verdicts were announced. We are rarely able to do the original investigative reporting that might have exposed these individuals. But our purpose was served nevertheless: to remind our readers that such confidence games go on all the time, and that—especially in church circles where we all trade on trust—believers must beware. Friends of the fallen have complained that we were kicking Christian brothers while they were down. But our purpose is not to smear: only to warn.
Objectivity is no longer in fashion. Most journalists, including many Christian journalists, believe it is no longer possible: Since we all come to the events of the day with our precommitments, whether to kingdom values or worldly ways, we should be transparent, own up to our prejudices, and report with vigor.
But fairness should never be out of fashion. And part of the way CT's editors measure their fairness is by the reactions of those on the wrong side of our commitments. Do those whose positions we consider wrong recognize themselves in our reporting? When they say they were not caricatured, but disagreed with in an accurate and principled fashion, we know we've been doing our job. Recent coverage of Mormonism brought forth just such responses from Latter-day Saints ("Mormons on the Rise," June 15, 1998, p. 24). They thanked us for our fairness, despite our differences.
In 1993, journalist-historian Paul Johnson said, "Fairness is one of the deepest human yearnings—it is the first moral point a small child recognizes—and lack of it the commonest complaint the public flings at the media." Christian journalism has a moral and scriptural mandate to be even fairer than its secular counterparts.
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