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Trust me, I’m a journalist

BY MICHAEL DAVIS | NOVEMBER 18, 2009 7:21 AM

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“There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Walter Lippmann wrote the truth.
As the Fourth Estate, our allegiance is to our audience and the truth. This does not always mean painting a nice, elegant picture of newsmakers.

A recent event provides a perfect example of such a battle between journalists and a source for a story.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke at small private high school in Manhattan late last month. Nothing should have come from this visit but a few handshakes and a hard-boiled sermon on the importance of the Supreme Court.

Instead, Kennedy gave the students a lesson in journalism ethics.

Before the student newspaper, The Daltonian, was allowed to print a story on this prestigious visit, Kennedy’s office insisted on “taking a look” at the piece. The officials’ reason was to make sure his quotations were accurate, Kathleen Arberg, the public information officer for the court, said in a recent New York Times article.

Kennedy’s request highlights a larger issue that goes beyond the childish petulance he exhibited with his school-yard bullying tactics.

We have a credo at The Daily Iowan: Sources cannot view our work before publication.

When we talk to sources, it’s always with the strictest sense of cooperation. We ask questions, they provide the answers, and the final result is what you see at the breakfast table. For clarity, we do recite a source’s quotations to the individual. But in all circumstances, the story is for our eyes only until publication.

This arrangement presupposes the highest of ethical imperatives for journalists and sources: trust.

One of my favorite scenes in Almost Famous is when William Miller, a freelance reporter for Rolling Stone, tells the band he is following, “I will quote you warmly and accurately.” One band member replies, “That’s what we’re worried about.”

“Accurately” is the word that should draw your attention immediately.

It’s simple enough on the surface but, in certain occasions, not so concrete for journalists. Poor examples like Stephen Glass, who lied and falsified information for The New Republic, are what make our job of telling the truth all the more important and crucial.

This may not be the truth that our sources want to hear or want published. But if it’s honest and forthright, then the most important element of our job is done.

Honesty and solid reporting are the bedrock principles that give us the marketable difference in a marketplace that is inching ever so closer to gossip and hearsay.

We separate ourselves by our adherence to the notion that information and facts are our currency. More than the almighty dollar, truth is our intrinsic idol.

Kennedy is guilty of not giving the student journalists that opportunity. The fact that he felt so strongly compelled to “tweak” the story tells us more about his need to be quoted his way.

Mistakes can happen, and they are certainly regrettable in all cases. Journalists make retractions and corrections for that purpose. But before we implicate all reporters, we must give all journalists — large and small — the benefit of the doubt.

As a public service, journalism works because those that participate in its functionary purpose have enough pride in themselves to get it right. Facts are the last place we like to skim.

“First, do no harm.”

This phrase is often falsely attributed to the Hippocratic Oath. I like to think of it as correctly representing what we practice as journalists.


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