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Return to news basics needed; Media must recommit to public if trust is ever to be restored


WHAT HAS journalism come to? That appeared to be the question posed Jan. 17 by TV's best drama, "The Practice." In the episode, a journalist accused of being an accessory to murder was put on trial. His crime? He was the TV executive in charge of a news program that aired on assisted suicide. And, of course, the jury convicted.

It was great television. I'd expect no less from one of my favorite shows. But the episode disturbed me -- not because journalism can't sustain criticism, but because it is so deserving of it. Clearly, the show mirrored the public's skepticism of American journalism, and coming off one of our worst years in recent history, we have only ourselves to blame.

During the past several months, we haven't given the public much reason to trust us. Just last week, People magazine ran a cover story on Chelsea Clinton despite pleas from the president and his wife to leave her out of the sex-scandal coverage.

"For over six years, the media has understood and respected the unique situation facing Chelsea as she grows up in the spotlight focused on her parents," the Clintons said Wednesday in a prepared statement. "We have been very grateful for the media's restraint in allowing Chelsea the privacy that any young person needs and deserves."

The Clintons said People chose to run the story "despite personal appeals with respect to her privacy and her security from her parents."

People described the eight-page story as "an intimate look at the deep bond of love that sustains the Clinton women through their painful family ordeal" in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment of the president.

Last year, columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith were ousted from the Boston Globe for fabricating material. The New Republic's Stephen Glass also hit the pavement after the magazine discovered he was fabricating material. Major news organizations, CNN and Time, had to retract an unsubstantiated story. Also, the Cincinnati Enquirer was disgraced by a reporter who intercepted voice mail from the Chiquita company. To settle the case, the Enquirer paid $10 million to the company and issued an apology.

To top it off, the distinguished TV news show "60 Minutes" aired an assisted suicide -- the obvious inspiration for the episode of "The Practice." While I would not call the "60 Minutes" controversy a scandal, I believe that the news program's lack of judgment further harmed journalism's sinking credibility. It unwittingly fed public cynicism because critics maintained that the program's goal was to generate ratings, not a meaningful debate over a controversial topic.

But these blows amount to only a fraction of the problem. Last month, the American Society of Newspaper Editors released a study that indicates the public distrusts the media because of spelling errors, bias and sensationalism, according to a recent article in Editor & Publisher. I latched onto the portion of the study that says if reporters can't get spelling and grammar correct, then the public is going to question whether they have their facts straight. The study also reveals the public's suspicion of anonymous sources and the biases of news organizations.

So what's the answer?

At the risk of sounding simplistic, I propose a return to the basics of good journalism -- those things we teach in the classroom that we don't always practice in the newsroom. And we must begin with the reader.

Every semester, my students learn about the characteristics of news as a way of selecting and reporting stories. They learn to weigh competing factors to determine what stories get coverage. We simulate real-life scenarios, so that students understand the difficult choices news operations face daily. But the bottom line, the students learn, is the reader. The reader and the public welfare are the final measurements that determine whether news should run.

And that's the message of "The Journalist's Creed," written by Walter Williams, the former dean of the school of journalism at my alma mater, the University of Missouri. The creed says that "the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust. ... I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible."

Wow. Just imagine how different our relationship to the public would be if we acted as their trustees, rather than career builders lusting after the next coveted award. Perhaps our egos have blinded us to the fact that it is more important to serve the public than our reputations.

Once we have our bearings, we must also recommit ourselves to the basics of good reporting. They are check, check and re-check. Spelling, grammar and facts matter to the readers, so they should matter to us. Given today's technology and increasingly educated journalists, spelling errors should be almost unforgivable, while factual errors should be a rarity. Given that journalism is an abundantly human process, errors cannot be eliminated, but they must be minimized. Our readers expect no less, and our editors shouldn't, either.

I know critics will claim that this approach is too simplistic, and that perhaps a task force should examine the profession's shortcomings. Well, they can take heart that many good organizations are scrutinizing the future of journalism. They are studying and dissecting the profession in the hopes of repairing our tattered credibility. Their efforts are laudable, but from my vantage point, they are largely unnecessary. For, you see, we know what to do: recommit ourselves as trustees for the public and vigorously fulfill that duty.

Pam Parry teaches journalism at the American University in Washington, D.C. A journalist for 14 years, she is a free-lance writer and formerly the congressional correspondent for the Baptist News Service.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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