Why journalists must speak truth

This – even to me – looks like a bit of a rant, but still…

This began life as a note to a writer. Don’t even recall if I actually sent it, but I wrote it earlier this year when discussing a story whose writer, I felt, had not yet fully embraced what I believe to be fundamental to journalism – the determination to tell the unvarnished truth, stripped of the writer’s personal opinion. I was calling on the writer to check his feelings and perform a public service – as a reporter seeking to offer factual information.

In view of what’s going on at 60 Minutes right now, maybe this has some value. It has been slightly edited, although it still lacks a tidy conclusion.

There are reasons for the changes I’have made in your story. I’m going to try to explain briefly.

The reason why I have stated repeatedly to you that you needed to make sure and not rely solely on the anecdotal comments – no matter how impassioned – of a single unofficial source, is that such sources have limited scope, limited information, limited context, and, in the worst case scenario, may be wrong about some material fact.

The reason investigative reporters have, for as long as there have been investigative reporters, built their stories on both comments from people in the know or supposedly in the know, and the paperwork of agencies, organizations, and governments – including governmental officials who collect, compile, and catalog reports and statistics – is that doing so yields the greatest likelihood of presenting a factual story. That’s the goal.

The job of a journalist is to get at the truth to the best of his ability. Why? Because that is the responsibility which has been entrusted to him. Because the people who rely on his report cannot make good decisions with bad information. Because if he can’t be trusted to tell the truth, his enterprise serves no purpose beyond that of a storyteller. A journalist stripped of the truth becomes an entertainer, a pacifier, a source of inflammation, but not an honest informer.

The more emotion a topic generates, the more exaggerated and inflated statements are likely to be made. That’s human nature. To counteract that, therefore, journalists seek independent verification of the facts, whether through additional human sources or through government reports, or compilations of facts gathered and offered by quasi governmental or even non-governmental sources.

 

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Author: nickpattersonfreelance

I'm a professional reporter, writer, editor, teacher, storyteller. A former travel and features editor for Southern Living, I started Velleity because people keep offering me travel stuff and you may as well benefit from it.

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