Responsibility and the Press

Published: June 23, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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Winston Churchill famously said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” I’m not sure exactly when he said that, but with the presence of the Internet, I’m positive the time frame has been reduced to a nanosecond.

One of the best resources for questions concerning journalism’s purpose and responsibility is the Pew Research Center’s Project Excellence in Journalism which “…conducts research about journalism in the hope that a better understanding of what the news media is providing to citizens will help journalists do a better job and help citizens better understand what to expect and how to demand what they need.”

Each day, we are bombarded with more and more information. According to a study by UC San Diego’s Global Information Industry, “In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day.”

Navigating all that information in a manner that allows us to sort truth from myth can be more than a little daunting. So, what are the responsibilities of journalists?

“In 1997, an organization then administered by PEJ, theCommittee of Concerned Journalists, began a national conversation among citizens and news people to identify and clarify the principles that underlie journalism. After four years of research… the group released a Statement of Shared Purposethat identified nine principles.”

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth – Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context… ‘journalistic truth’ is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information…  

2. Its first loyalty is to citizens – While news organizations answer to many constituencies, including advertisers and shareholders, the journalists in those organizations must maintain allegiance to citizens and the larger public interest above any other if they are to provide the news without fear or favor…

3. Its essence is a discipline of verification – Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information. When the concept of objectivity originally evolved, it did not imply that journalists are free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information–a transparent approach to evidence–precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work…

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover – Independence is an underlying requirement of journalism, a cornerstone of its reliability…While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform – not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, we must avoid any tendency to stray into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power –Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens… As journalists, we have an obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain.

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise – The news media are the common carriers of public discussion, and this responsibility forms a basis for our special privileges. This discussion serves society best when it is informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition. It also should strive to fairly represent the varied viewpoints and interests in society, and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate…

7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant – Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. It should do more than gather an audience or catalogue the important. For its own survival, it must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need…

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional –Keeping news in proportion and not leaving important things out are also cornerstones of truthfulness. Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map…

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience – Every journalist must have a personal sense of ethics and responsibility – a moral compass. Each of us must be willing, if fairness and accuracy require, to voice differences with our colleagues, whether in the newsroom or the executive suite. News organizations do well to nurture this independence by encouraging individuals to speak their minds. This stimulates the intellectual diversity necessary to understand and accurately cover an increasingly diverse society. It is this diversity of minds and voices, not just numbers, that matters.

With credibility and trust at a premium in a vast and competing marketplace of news and information, responsible journalists are more critical than ever.


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