This issue of Quill magazine is devoted to the quality work that won Sigma Delta Chi Awards for 2002. This is the work that set the bar for everyone else in journalism:
The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, Mass., reporting on the drowning of four boys in the Merrimack River; The Los Angeles Times’ Carolyn Cole getting exclusive photos of Palestinians under siege in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity; Steve Miller of Chicago’s WBBM Radio reporting on convicted criminals running day-care operations; WedMD on kids and depression; KHOU-TV in Houston on a crime lab whose errors helped send the innocent to prison; and, of course, the Boston Globe’s reports on sexual abuse by priests.
These stories may be the best of the year, but newspapers, television and radio stations, newsletters and online sites are producing work every day that similarly exposes wrongdoing, expands understanding of a complex subject or introduces a community to someone it wouldn’t otherwise know.
This is what I wish Americans would think of when pollsters ask them if they trust the news media. They would say, “We’re thankful to live in a country where the First Amendment gives us a press that tells the full story of the human experience.”
Sadly, we all know that’s not what readers, viewers and listeners tell pollsters. A Freedom Forum survey last year found nearly half the respondents saying the First Amendment goes too far. A Pew Center poll at about the same time had a majority saying the press gets in the way of society solving its problems.
And a recent USA Today survey was particularly chilling: Only 36 percent believed the news media gets the facts right.
The reasons seem obvious. The good work we do is overshadowed by Jayson Blair, Mike Barnicle, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Bob Greene, the debacle of election night 2000, Monica Lewinsky … the list, sadly, goes on.
Few Americans follow these stories as closely as we do. They don’t dwell on the details. But they hear enough – he made up stories; he plagiarized other writers; they kept flip-flopping on who won Florida – that their opinion of the news media falls. If someone at The New York Times makes up stories, surely all reporters do.
But it’s not just the high-profile sins that hurt us.
The Associated Press Managing Editors keyed in on one of the questions raised by the Jayson Blair fiasco: Why would readers and sources fail to alert a newspaper to errors? The group asked that question of 3,000 people, members of reader advisory networks created through APME’s National Credibility Roundtables Project. The early responses are troubling.
“There are many times when I have not offered a correction since the prevailing belief is one of arrogant indifference to detail,” said Rod Steadman of Spokane, Wash. “Why waste the time?” responded John Martin Meek of Green Valley, Ariz., who said the newspaper has never responded to his phone calls or e-mails in three years.
And George Carvill of Milford, N.H., cut to the heart of the issue: “It does remind me that editors and managers have a responsibility to see that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. The Times blew it here. Too bad for The Times; too bad for all of us.”
SPJ’s first and foremost mission is defense of the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press. We do this most vigorously through our advocacy on behalf of freedom of information and open government. That will not change.
But the battle becomes so much more difficult when only 36 percent of the people believe we can be trusted to get the story right, or when a plurality says the First Amendment goes too far. This public opinion makes it easier for lawmakers to ignore our arguments. In the long run, it works against strong self-government.
We can’t fight the battle for FOI only on Capitol Hill and in statehouses. To protect FOI, we have to be just as vigorous in advocating everywhere for ethical journalism. The Ethics Committee did a great job in organizing SPJ’s first National Ethics Week at the end of April. Excellent programs were created with funding from the SDX Foundation. Chapters took the initiative to sponsor their own programs or distribute copies of the Code of Ethics.
And in that week, the Salt Lake Tribune revealed that two of its reporters sold information to the National Enquirer. Jayson Blair was revealed to be a liar and plagiarist.
The ethics conversation clearly needs more than one week out of the year. The ethics committee, the national board, chapters and individual members should be promoting the ethics code and speaking out against unethical practices on a regular basis. Regular conversations in newsrooms can only help.
And we need to go beyond finger shaking. We need to get to the roots of what causes unethical conduct and offer tips on avoiding it. And we need to recognize, just as loudly and publicly, sound ethical decisions. They far outnumber the outrages, but they are hardly mentioned.
The USA Today survey that found so little faith in the news media also contained this nugget: 78 percent of those who had been part of a story covered by the media said the coverage was accurate. That’s the news we need to be spreading. We can do it through promoting ethical conduct, acknowledging and correcting errors, and being honest with readers, viewers and listeners.
And we can do it through great work, such as that of the Sigma Delta Chi Award winners profiled in this issue. We ought to spend more time talking about them than we do about Jayson Blair, because they represent what journalism really is all about.
Robert Leger is president of the Society of Professional Journalists and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.