6 tests of real journalism
August 4, 2017
Updated: August 4, 2017 6:17pm
Journalism has come under public scrutiny to a degree never experienced in my four decades in the profession. President Trump has assailed what he calls “fake news” and has attempted to delegitimize watchdog reporting with a vigor that makes President Richard Nixon’s efforts pale in comparison. The Washington Post and New York Times have engaged in one of the great newspaper wars of modern times in their determination to expose the administration’s provable lies and suspected malfeasance.
1. Leaks and anonymous sources
“There may never be another Deep Throat” if journalists are not allowed to protect the identity of their sources, a Republican congressman from Indiana told me in a July 2007 phone interview about legislation that would provide journalists with such a guarantee. His name was Mike Pence, now vice president in an administration that is near apoplectic about leaks.
Here is the reality: Many stories of government wrongdoing would simply not be possible without anonymous sources. Here is my standard: A journalist must measure the veracity and motivation of the source and — equally important — validate the disclosure through other means. Mainstream news organizations include these requirements and require an editor to know the identity and assess the credibility of the source before signing off on the story. In cases involving national security, major news organizations routinely give government officials an opportunity to flag details that might compromise intelligence or military operations.
As for the Trump White House suggestion that these anonymous leaks are somehow unfair or undermining the nation’s interest, consider how the mainstream media has exposed the duplicity of this administration. Would Americans really be better off not knowing what Trump told his Russian visitors behind closed doors about his firing of FBI Director James Comey … or that the meeting that Donald Jr. had with the Russians was not pitched to talk adoptions but to offer a potentially illegal transfer of dirt about Hillary Clinton … or that Trump’s lawyer was flat-out wrong in claiming the president had nothing to do with drafting a misleading statement about the meeting? Just the other day, Americans learned — through a leaked transcript — that earlier reports of a “contentious” phone call between Trump and the Australian prime minister that the president derided as “fake news” was, indisputably, highly contentious.
Our right to know what the people in power are doing sometimes requires the use of anonymous sources. Otherwise we are left at the mercy of so-called public servants willing to spin or invent the truth.
2. Blind quotes
While anonymous sources can be critical to supplying the facts of a story — whether securing documents or describing a behind-the-scenes meeting — I have an issue with unattributed quotes that amount to opinion or speculation. The Trump White House has been the target of many such “blind quotes” in his short tenure.
I cry foul: As a reader or viewer, I want to know which “senior White House official” said what and for what reason. The president himself has been known to ask that he be referred to as a “senior administration official.”
The use of blind quotes is epidemic in the national media. I’ve seen it creep into our own news pages from time to time. It’s especially troubling to see an unnamed source take a cheap shot at someone else. It only subtracts from our credibility with skeptical readers who are wondering what to believe.
3. On the record
As journalists, our role must always be to push news figures to stay on the record whenever possible. Our job is to represent our readers — and let them know what we know — rather than to ingratiate ourselves with the insider crowd. Sorry, Anthony Scaramucci, you should have known that the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza was our eyes and ears, not your sympathetic ear, when you went on that vulgar rant about your soon-to-be, then not-to-be, White House colleagues.
4. You tweet it, you own it
Some reporters and editors seem to think they get a free pass to express their personal opinions on social media about the people or issues they cover. They do not. It’s a public forum. True professionalism requires a journalist to assiduously avoid even a perception of bias. If President Trump is held accountable for his tweets — as he should be — then so should we.
5. You are not the story
The big cable news clash of the week was CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s alpha duel with White House senior adviser Stephen Miller about the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. Acosta crossed the line between asking questions and showboating, and Miller shot back with Scaramucci-grade musking — guaranteeing extended replays, with predictable conflicting outrage, on CNN and Fox News. It brought more heat than light, and a reminder to journalists everywhere: You are not the story.
6. Corrections and accountability
Perhaps the most telling distinction between real and fake news is an organization’s commitment to acknowledge and correct its mistakes — and, if warranted, to elevate its standards to prevent a recurrence. CNN deserves credit for retracting what turned out to be a flawed story about a Senate investigation into an alleged meeting between a CEO of a Russian investment fund and a member of Trump’s transition team (Scaramucci). Three CNN employees resigned after the story fell apart.
Less noble was the way “Fox & Friends” — in a segment trumpeted by its No. 1 fan, the president himself — recently glossed over its false accusation that a New York Times story hindered the U.S. military’s attempt to kill a leader of the Islamic State.
Authentic journalism requires a relentless and clear-eyed pursuit of truth, and accountability for the inadvertent but inevitable glitches along the way. Those qualities seem to be sorely missing from the Trump White House, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity for my profession.