Towards the restoration of the fourth estate
THOS. JEFFERSON stated that if given a choice between government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, he’d choose the latter. With good reason, the press has been expected to play a major, if not crucial, role in this democracy. We now see in stark, abject relief that, absent candid information and unfiltered transparency, government will serve its own interests, not the people’s. Without honest, agenda-free journalism, the electorate cannot make informed decisions, ergo, modern democracy cannot function. A reporter who emphasizes some facts while downplaying or omitting others, to encourage the audience to reach certain conclusions, is an activist, not a journalist. A reporter who acts as a ‘curator’, substituting his or her own biased judgment for the facts to which the public is entitled, denies the people the freedom to make their own decisions based on all the facts.
Because it has become almost impossible to find actual journalism in America today, one would ask if the essential role of the press will ever be fulfilled in our nation again. Reporters now take pride in being advocates and “resistors”; the line between editorials and news coverage hardly exists anymore.
To restore the public’s faith and trust in American journalism, I suggest the following standards and ethics. If an existing journalistic enterprise were to adopt and enforce them, it would at first be a novelty but would quickly become the most credible with the public, while being the most reviled in the press community.
- A professional journalist gathers and reports only facts, fairly and without bias. “Truth” shall be inferred by the audience solely from the facts reported. “Fact” belongs in news. “Truth” belongs only in editorials.
- Evidence of bias shall consist of, but shall not be limited to:
- The omission of relevant facts or the inclusion of irrelevant facts;
- usage of the words “but”, “only”, “however” and the like, where such words tend to lead the audience to a conclusion or create a subjective impression;
- using terms such as “claim” or “insist” for the speech of one political class or group, but “aver” or “state” for that of another;
- using terms such as “cronies” or “handlers” to describe the staffs of one politician, but “advisors” or “counselors” for those in similar positions of another. A reporter whose work evinces such bias shall immediately become a former reporter.
- If your mother says she loves you, check it out. If you’re not a skeptic, you’re not a reporter. Six billion people can call a dog a horse, but it’s still a dog. If you truly care who wins the election, work somewhere else. No story is ‘too good to check’. An expert can be absolutely certain about something, and can still be wrong. The world’s best scientists arrived at a consensus that the Sun orbited the Earth, iron ships couldn’t float and metal airplanes couldn’t fly.
- A reporter investigating a story, who uses a source requesting anonymity, may use that source’s information only if that information is confirmed by at least two other independent sources who do not personally know the first source, and each other. A senior editor may waive this requirement under extraordinary circumstances. A reporter’s story may acknowledge coverage by other outlets, but must indicate that independent confirmation, under the above rules, could not be obtained.
- No reporter may cover a story if the reporter has a personal or professional relationship with any entity that is directly or indirectly involved in the actions or events of the story.
- No reporter may contribute in any way to any story if that reporter has any degree of bias for or against any person, party, nation, race, creed, ethnicity or other segment of that story at any level, whether the story is political, social or otherwise.
- No reporter may, under any circumstances, accept any gift from any person or representative of any organization that the reporter is covering or may cover in the future. This includes, but is not limited to, a cup of coffee, sports tickets, trips, meals, drinks, personal “favors”*, “entrée”, favor-generating introductions and the like.
- Our priorities are, in order:
- Absence of bias
- Informational accuracy
- News speed / timeliness
- Overall credibility of our organization
- A reporter and his or her immediate family may not:
- be a member of any political party or organization, either formally or informally;
- contribute money or time to any political organization, party, candidate or committee at any level, either domestic or foreign;
- attend any political meeting, rally, march, gathering or other public political event except for the express purpose of effecting assigned news coverage;
- express, either publicly or outside his or her immediate family, any political opinions whatsoever, except in the course of his or her duties within the company;
- advocate or oppose, outside of his or her family, a political position, party or candidate;
- wear any political apparel or regalia;
- attach any political stickers or signs anywhere or to anything, or
- take action that would violate the spirit of, but not necessarily a technical limitation of, this provision.
- A reporter should fulfill his or her civic duty to vote in any election in which he or she is lawfully entitled to vote as an unaffiliated voter. A reporter should never discuss their vote with anyone outside of their family, anywhere outside of their own home, ever.
Granted, it wouldn’t be easy to find a lot of people today to work under these rules, since most people in the craft think their professional obligation is to influence, rather than inform. Put another way, today’s hacks don’t know their place and don’t know how to contribute to, and participate in, democracy. And unless that changes, and pretty darn quick, we’re in deep voodoo.
*Yes that kind of very personal favor.