Monday, September 14, 2015

Truth above all else

Christopher Miller
As the decades go by, few can anticipate what the world will become. One certainty that is often very hard for people to accept is that change will occur. Few can understand the impact of rapid change better than those who have worked in or studied in journalism over the past few decades.

The biggest change being the shift from an industry based primarily on print journalism to an industry where digital and online journalism now reign supreme, with print journalism becoming a fleeting albeit treasured commodity. As if this adjustment hasn’t been tough enough to accept, we are now seeing the very fundamentals of which our industry has been built upon being challenged as well.

The idea that you should be truthful when writing and reporting seems like a forgone conclusion to many. There is not an ethics code or journalism program in the country who would say otherwise.

Shockingly though, there are some popular organizations within the industry who have disagreed with my personal opinion, one that is backed by the dozens of journalism ethics codes in existence, that truth is first and foremost, it is a core value in the journalism industry.
One such organization who has challenged this assertion is American Internet news media juggernaut BuzzFeed.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a story by Marc Fisher of The Washington Post titled “who cares if it’s true?” Fisher’s piece, a rather lengthy, yet eye-opening feature exploring the changing values within the modern-day newsroom used the BuzzFeed culture as his prime example. 

Since the early days of BuzzFeed, which is now approaching its tenth year of operation, it was clear that being satirical held a higher value than being truthful This was evident by their view of the Internet where the Web is a self-correcting mechanism, thus making it acceptable to leave truth up to “trial and error.”

As BuzzFeed sees it, “If that meant presenting stories before they’d been thoroughly vetted, that was okay, because the Internet would correct itself. Truth would emerge through open trial and error (Fisher, 2015).”

As a young journalist, I struggle to understand this questionable course of reasoning. In this profession you already have immense freedom and creative license at your disposal when writing or covering a story. Yes, your boss may tell you what story to cover, that much is unavoidable. But, he or she cannot tell you exactly what to say. The privilege of what you say, and exactly how you express it is up to you and only you.

The freedoms we have as writers and journalists is simply unparalleled by any other profession. Take the field of accounting for example, an accountant spends a majority of their day looking at financial statements, doing taxes and the like. In doing these tasks, you have very little (if any) creative freedom. After all, are there really that many ways to fill out tax forms, income statements, and balance sheets?  

With this in mind, I just cannot understand why news organizations, who already have such freedom, feel the need for even more freedom with regard to truthfulness and accuracy or lack thereof in some instances.

If you can’t be truthful in your writing and reporting, than what is the point?  I think this is what senior advisor to the president at the Knight Foundation and former managing editor of the Newseum Eric Newton had in mind when he stated,

“We get the media we deserve,” he says. But over time, “we all come to see that people want to know something that is true (Newton, 2015).”
Obviously, journalism, like anything else in this world is far from perfect. To function properly, it requires a little bit of give and take. It’s a balancing act if you will. This is sentiment illustrated by Marc Fisher when he said,

 “It’s about finding the right middle point. Some degree of perfectionism turns out to be good for business, and absolute perfectionism can prevent great journalism from ever happening at all. Journalists haven’t found a magic answer (Fisher, 2015).”

I agree with Fisher in that you can’t always abide by the rules and regulations striving for perfection under every circumstance and that there needs to be more of a middle ground. However I also believe that there is some merit to that old saying, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Even with all the change that journalism has gone through in an effort to “keep up with the times,” the one thing that “wasn’t broke,” that didn’t need changed, fixed, or altered is the idea that truth should be at the core of every journalistic venture. Anything less than that is simply unacceptable.

Thankfully, it seems like BuzzFeed is starting to get the hint that you can’t just change the very foundation at which a profession has been built. This was clear when BuzzFeed editor Sean Hemmerele said,

“BuzzFeed editors say their audience used to see their site as a place you could find really cool stuff, but not a place you could trust. They’re trying to change that.”


1 comment:

  1. Kindred spirit!

    Please take a look at this new short 15-min documentary, newest in my "Assassination By Media" series.

    Your comments would be greatly appreciated and will help with a longer version of this particular video.