Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What Happened to Verifying the Truth?

Allison Cook

The second thing listed in PRSA's Code of Ethics is "Honesty." Under this subhead is the statement "we adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public." So why are celebrities able to get away with so many lies for so long?

On Tuesday, an Ohio University Scripps alum came to talk to my Ethics class. As she talked with us about what she does at Edelman, an American Public Relations firm, she said that the public wants to know two things when the truth comes out: What do you, the PR agent and the company, know and how long have you known it.

For one of our class readings, we read about a college football player, Josh Shaw, who had pretended to rescue his seven-year-old nephew from drowning. The story came out to the public via the university's athletic department and from there the media pounced on it. In this case it only took 24 hours for Shaw to come clean.

Welch Sugges, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, said in the article: "If you're in the business of telling stories, you need to make sure your stories are accurate." This highlights the point that no matter what type of journalism you are in, news or PR, you need to make sure that your story is true.

Our article made it sound like the University's PR team was mislead, as were the media outlets that jumped on the piece, and I have no reason to doubt that. What the article doesn't say is why they picked the piece up from the start and whether or not they verified the accounts of the incident before publishing and releasing their story.

At least the lie only lasted 24 hours.

The next story deals with a lie that was told for about fourteen years and was only undone when the New York Times found evidence that undermined the story. Steve Rannazzisi, a comedian and actor, lied about his whereabouts on 9/11 until September 15, 2015.

In a follow-up article in the New York Times by Serge F. Kovaleski, Rannazzisi is all over the place with his apology. His lie had been strung so strong that it appeared to me that he had been caught off guard by the final unveiling of his lie. First he is quoted saying, in a statement provided by his publicist, that he "was not at the Trade Center on that day. I don't know why I said this. This was inexcusable. I am truly, truly sorry." Later he is quoted again through the same statement, since he declined an interview, saying "I have wished that, with silence, I could somehow erase a story told by an immature young man. It only made me more ashamed." This statement conflicts with the fact that Rannazzisi had mentioned in several interviews, including ones during 2009 and 2013, the fake accounts of his experience on 9/11.
Photo Credit: Richard Shotwell/Invision, via Associated Press Steve
Rannazzisi, a comedian and actor, lied for about fourteen years about his
experiences on 9/11. These lies are what he contributes much of his success to. 
The other troublesome part of this story is how Merrill Lynch, the company Rannazzisi claimed to be working for on 9/11, responded to his lies. Or should I say, lack of response? It seemed that Merrill Lynch never came out to say Rannazzisi was never in any of their records. It was the New York Times that came up with this information. Kovaleski said that Merrill Lynch "has no record of his employment and had no offices in either tower." So, why did this take 14 years to come up?

While a well-known actor lying is bad enough for his credibility and reputation, lying about a horrific event like 9/11 has made the whole situation worse. Allowing the lie to last for this long is the absolute worst part of this situation.

In my first example, it was a question of why the truth was not verified before reporting. In my last example it was a question of why it took so long for the truth to come out. Both situations could have been less problematic if a careful examination of each story had been conducted as soon as the stories hit the media.

Truth is the basis of everything we do as journalists, both as news writers and PR agents. Without truth, how can we ever expect the public to listen and believe us?

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