The Responsibility Of Journalists

Susan Page
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Wednesday - June 08, 2005
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Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in this crazy age of information. Anything we need to know is a Google search away.

But is the information always correct? As a journalist, one must always be acutely aware of the importance of “getting it right” — sources checked and double checked, quotes carefully confirmed. Falsified or inaccurate stories have recently done in several promising journalists — and even one venerable network news icon, Dan Rather.

Last week after Googling quotes by Nelson Mandela, I felt confident. A favorite quote by a man I admire deeply was the perfect basis for a column on overcoming mediocrity. Then, after the column was published in MidWeek, I got this e-mail:

“Thank you for your June 1 article in MidWeek. The quote, often attributed to Nelson Mandela, is actually by Marianne Williamson. I too have used it in speeches and in sermons and to my dismay someone came up to me one Sunday and handed me a piece of paper with the correct author’s name. Nonetheless, it does not diminish the essence of your article. I think there are many cultural innuendoes related to ‘shame’ vs. ‘mediocrity’ vs. ‘guilt’ and so forth. I enjoyed your article. It provokes much thought and discussion. Stay well. —Rev. Frank Chong”

Thank you, Reverend Chong. Your kindness softened the hard reality that I had attributed a quote to the wrong person. (“Staying well” is hard when you feel like throwing up!) Totally mortified, I apologize to you, the readers, and to Ms. Williamson for my error.

Editor Don Chapman tried to cheer me up: “At least nobody rioted in Afghanistan …” Very funny, Don. And actually very timely.

He was, of course, referring to the recent Newsweek story, now debunked, that a copy of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, had been flushed down a toilet by an American guard at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. prison complex. Rioting, bloodshed and at least 16 deaths in Afghanistan were attributed to Muslim reaction to the story. The erroneous story also caused a setback in the fragile, yet growing trust painstakingly forged by our American military men and women over the past three years in that region. It also made it a more dangerous place for our troops by reigniting strong emotions against the U.S.

I don’t anticipate any such reaction to my quote faux pas. I’ve met Marianne Williamson and she is all about love, faith and forgiveness. So is Mandela.

But it does raise the question of journalistic responsibility and accountability. We rely on our newspapers to keep us accurately informed and when the integrity of news is suspect, where do we turn? Should the writer of the Koran flushing story and Newsweek have been held at least partially responsible for the resulting chaos, which may not yet be fully realized? Was it like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater or just over-zealous reporting?

Or is it political bias? So eager are some journalists to flush out any possible misstep by the U.S. military in this war on terror and the war in Iraq, consequences be damned. Heads can roll — literally. Perhaps wishful thinking makes unreliable sources seem more trustworthy. Today’s news media business is so massive and competitive that the temptation to scoop “the big exclusive story” can cloud judgment. As television news commentator and award-winning journalist Brit Hume said in a June 2003 speech at Hillsdale College, “… there’s an old saying in newsrooms: ‘No news is bad news, good news is dull news, and bad news makes marvelous copy.’ Reporters have a natural instinct, therefore, to look for the negative.”

A local daily paper editor wrote a commentary last week on how, having been accused of never saying anything nice, he looked at the headlines in his paper and couldn’t find anything but bad news. Well, isn’t that like looking in the phone book and only finding phone numbers?

Journalists are human. They — we — make mistakes. That’s why it takes an informed public that searches many sources for their news. And keeps us on our toes.

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