Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Power and Responsibility

Last week we had an opportunity for Don Meyers, a reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune, to come to our class to discuss “The Mind of the Journalist.” He started out with the usual blab, the whole giving voice to the voiceless and persistence in tracking down the truth rant, but then he said something that I have always hoped to hear, but was surprised nonetheless when the words came.

According to Meyers, “Journalists are storytellers at heart, plus historians with a sense of justice.”

Thank you, Mr. Meyers, for agreeing with me. But after reading David Carr’s Media Equation column this Monday (see http://tinyurl.com/2fo58zh), I had to wonder if it wouldn’t be healthy for journalists to add a belief in ethics to their sense of justice.

Carr’s column discussed a situation in which a blogger decided to publish a scandalous account without the consent of the source, who had insisted she did not want to go public. At first the mainstream media ignored the story, but as it gained momentum, they too decided run their version, again without the permission of the original source.

I worry that in our insatiable appetite for a good story, we are forgetting that all we publish becomes public. It’s really an easy thing to do, once one has become accustomed to seeing their name in print. You forget you have an audience of thousands, and you forget the power that comes with that.

The subject of that scandal will never have the same public image, no matter what may come of the incident. That cannot be repaired—not even the journalist who first released the information can take it back. Perhaps we would do well to step back when offered a great story, to take a moment to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. Where much is given, much is required.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Journalists and Loyalty

Journalism, as far as reporters should be concerned, is not a business. A newspaper is not a product, and citizens are not customers.

Unfortunately, today’s economy is forcing some to make difficult decisions about where their loyalty lies—with their money, or with their readers. But a noble journalist bent on upholding those principals journalists have upheld and stood for since journalism began will always side with the citizens.

But of course, money is always tempting, and many have chosen to go the other way, giving the rest of us a rather bad name and leaving the public to fend for itself.

There is still hope, though. A group of journalists from www.concernedjournalists.org created and posted online what they call a “Citizen’s Bill of Journalism Rights.” Among the six tenants of their bill of rights, the committee suggested the public not only has a right to be protected by loyal, truthful journalists, but that they have a right to see proof of that loyalty. To do this, journalists must demonstrate their intent to “understand and reflect the whole community” they represent though stories which address the community’s needs, even if doing so is financially detrimental to the community.

According to last week’s presenters, a news organization cannot be successful in these goals without an owner and managers who are committed to producing quality journalism, not just maintaining a 30 percent profit margin. They must create and uphold high journalistic standards communicated both to the journalists who work for them and to the public.

Ultimately, the responsibility to act ethically falls on the reporter. But while the responsibility for any given decision falls solely on the reporter who made that choice, it wouldn’t hurt if the public were to support those who choose to serve them, rather than the flashy tricks of those who serve greed.