Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart hit the nail on the head. He said, "Journalists spend too much time worrying about what they have the right to do. and not enough time about what is the right thing to do." It ought to be emblazoned on a banner in every newsroom in the nation.
The First Amendment is an amazing piece of verbiage. "Congress shall make no law." right off the bat, the Framers of the governing document of America spelled out that the ability to freely express oneself in public discourse. whether in speech, writing or worship could never be taken away by any future Congress. But that right doesn't give those of us in the news business a carte blanche to report anything about anyone any time we feel like it. In my opinion, the dearest rights also come with responsibility. Too many times in the years that I've been a reporter, I have felt some of my fellow journalists were a bit cavalier in the way they did their work. Sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts sometimes playing unsuspected citizens when it made their story 'better.' No names no situations here - just my own thoughts.
Alongside Justice Stewart's quote, there ought to be a reportorial version of a Hippocratic oath: "First do no harm." Long after we've packed up our cameras and tripods and headed back to the studios to work on another report, the people we've interviewed, the folks whose stories we've told, will long remember our visit. It has always been my hope that while our interview subjects will always remember when the 'TV people' came, it shouldn't be an unhappy memory or one filled with regret.
I recall once interviewing a young girl for a story I did for CBS. The victim of a stalker, her case had been the impetus for amending stalking laws in her state to include minors as victims. As there were many states back then that didn't consider children the possible victims of stalkers, her case was national news. Before I met her, she was interviewed by another reporter who it appeared had seemed quite concerned about camera angles and the composition of shots. The experience left the girl and her family apprehensive and not so sure about reporters in general. I felt I had to show her that reporters didn't have horns before I could begin to ease a fearful little girl and her family into an interview about their scary situation.
I suppose that story helps to explain a change I've seen in the public's regard for the press over the years. There are regular surveys about where journalists are held in comparison to other professionals. Usually we rate somewhere around used car salesmen. But when I was studying Journalism at the University of Georgia, it was different. It was post-Watergate, a time when people not only acknowledged the press's important role in exposing the Watergate crimes, they applauded it.
Soon after, important laws that made it easier to both the press and public to keep tabs on government actions were passed: Sunshine laws that opened government meetings to members of the public, open records legislation allowed the public to know what the government knew about them. If a reporter went to jail to protect a source - and they did - the public was behind them. Now I sense the reaction is more "good riddance."
How does one change that now? I tend to think it requires a little action on both sides of the equation. Members of the public who are distrustful of the press today, the ones who find themselves saying, "There ought to be a law." should consider for a moment what America would be like without the protected speech of our First Amendment. Remember the right to freely speak, worship, assemble, etc. are rights belonging to all of us, not just those who call themselves reporters. Without that protected right, which totalitarian country would we most resemble?
When you see a print or broadcast or cable outlet that doesn't practice what you consider good reporting standards, don't patronize them. And tell your friends why you aren't watching or reading those guys anymore.
By the same token, if you do see a place where you believe reporters are honestly trying to get the facts on all sides of an issue, guided by editors and producers who are sober and reasoned in their approach - embrace them - and tell your friends about the great source for news and information that you've found. Let the bosses at the paper or the network know you like what they do. Their addresses are easy to find - and I can assure you those letters do get read.
I sometimes wonder if the biggest complainers are even really watching or reading? If you are reading this, you're on the internet, which may be a primary source of information for you. At the end of 2005, 50 million people a day go to the internet for news. I love the immediacy of the net. From my news computers at work, I have long been addicted to knowing everything that is going on. Now, thanks to the net, I get RSS emails when really big news breaks. To keep up with pop culture, I see the fluffy stuff on the main page of the portals I check out. Even if I don't click through to the story, I see the blurb on the latest stupid stunt of some star and feel I am 'plugged in.'
What these tools provide is surface knowledge. It's a million miles wide, but only a quarter-inch deep. I know what is going on but I won't have any idea why or how. As more and more of us begin to rely on the net for information, whether for reasons of convenience or frustration with mainstream media, I fear a large group of us will be lulled into a false sense of 'news awareness.' Thinking we possess knowledge and therefore power, in fact the power will lie with others who truly have a command of what's going on in our world. This comes at a time when mainstream media, especially print, are cutting the resources being devoted to news. For example, in 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper had 46 reporters assigned to cover local news. Today (as the paper has just been part of the sale of a group of papers by Knight-Ridder, the parent company), that figure is cut in half: only 24 reporters are on the local Philly beat.* Cutbacks are so plentiful in the newspaper business that the Dean of Columbia University's Journalism school said "newspapers risk early extinction."
And what could the media do? Besides take the 'do no harm' oath and remember Justice Stewart's admonition to 'do the right thing,' I think we've been hugely harmed as a group by the sloppiness of a few. The debacle at CBS News with its story about George W. Bush's National Guard service harmed the entire profession, not just the individuals at CBS News.
Years ago at a journalism convention I saw a bumper sticker for sale: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. There is simply no excuse for poorly sourcing a report. None. The CBS situation has been investigated six ways from Sunday, so my two cents worth aren't necessary. Reporters and the bosses who oversee them must be sure they've got their facts straight.
For those of you concerned that when you hear, "Sources say." in a news report means the guy three cubicles down said it, the good news is on average, 40 % the network evening newscasts have four sources per story.** That is pretty impressive sourcing and should be reassuring to those who fear the networks play fast and freely with their stories.
I believe also that the public's confidence in what we in the media do could be enhanced if we pulled the curtain back a bit and let folks in on how we do what we do. Trust me folks, it's not like visiting a sausage factory which I am told would insure you would never eat sausage again in your life! Rather, having done television news in one form or another for 27 years, I believe doubters would be pleasantly surprised by just how much care, attention to detail, and time goes into each news report.
Most reporters are in the business because they fervently believe the press plays an important role in a free society. Very few make Katie Couric salaries. The University of Missouri's review of Labor Department statistics found in 2000 that TV reporter salaries ranged from $14,650 to $25,375. That's an average of just over $18,000. Obviously, they're not in it for the money!
If you'd like to read more on these subjects, check out these websites:
www.journalism.org - State of the News Media 2006
www.pewinternet.org - March 22, 2006 report on Technology & Media use
* Pew Research Center/Project for Excellence in Journalism Report-March 14, 2006
** Project for Excellence in Journalism – State of the News Media 2006 report