Journalism requires more than merely reporting claims

January 12, 2017 04:30

By Scott Libin, RTDNA Chair-Elect

In crafting our new Code of Ethics two years ago, RTDNA chose “truth and accuracy above all” as our first guiding principle. It was not an arbitrary decision. Our Code continues:

The facts should get in the way of a good story. Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments. Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.

Those are my words, though the concept behind them is far from original to me. I encountered it first in the teachings of Bob Steele, who then led The Poynter Institute’s ethics programs. It was a powerful idea decades ago and is, if anything, more important than ever today.

It’s the principle on which RTDNA bases its belief that BuzzFeed was wrong to publish what has come to be known as “the Trump dossier” — at least to publish when it did, the way it did.

Entering this debate, we join a chorus of voices articulating thoughtful perspectives that are persuasive, even in their disagreement with one another.

Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride argues that BuzzFeed’s publication of the material was not an act of journalism. She says “publishing an entirely unvetted document is a significant departure from the way editors of most significant publications would define the role of reporting.”

Many Americans, probably including President-elect Trump, might say journalism is overdue for a “significant departure” from the way things have been done in the past. But adapting, improving, even disrupting doesn’t mean abandoning core values.

It’s easy to criticize but tougher to say how you would have handled something more effectively. McBride does exactly that.

“Here are some sentences I wish [BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben] Smith had included in his note,” she writes. “‘Here’s what we are doing to verify or debunk the claims…’ ‘Here’s a list of the people that helped us identify the harm we might cause in publishing this…’ ‘Here are the most important facts we’ve already independently verified…’”

McBride’s argument reflects another prominent part of the RTDNA Code:

For every story of significance, there are always more than two sides. While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.

That means more than simply acknowledging that we don’t know if what we’re sharing with you is true. Ironically, Trump himself is a practitioner of the “I’m not saying it’s true, I’m just saying it’s out there” approach. Remember his suggestion that the father of then-rival Sen. Ted Cruz had been connected with the JFK assassination?

But neither candidate Trump nor President-elect Trump has ever claimed to be a journalist.

An argument powerfully opposing McBride’s position comes from Columbia Journalism Review Managing Editor Vanessa M. Gezari.

“The media’s full-throated condemnation of BuzzFeed is both self-righteous and self-serving,” she says.

Even as Gezari commends BuzzFeed’s actions, she suggests some element of self interest at work there, too: “By publishing the documents when it did, accompanied by strong caveats about their reliability, BuzzFeed put itself at the heart of the story and made some of its most prominent journalists go-to people for any tips the dossier might generate,” she writes. “You can almost hear the rest of the media muttering, ‘Damn, why didn’t we think of that first?’”

Almost, maybe. You might also be almost able to hear other news organizations muttering, “Better them than us,” or even, “There but for the grace of God go we.”  

Gezari notes that a number of news organizations have had the disputed document for weeks or months. She continues: “But does a media that sits indefinitely on a potentially gigantic story inspire greater public trust? Hardly.”

“BuzzFeed noted up front that the documents contained ‘explosive -- but unverified -- information,’” Gezari says, “and Editor in Chief Ben Smith convincingly defended the decision in a staff memo, arguing that the dossier was being read and talked about ‘at the highest levels of American government and media.’”

The RTDNA Code of Ethics concludes with this passage:

The right to broadcast, publish or otherwise share information does not mean it is always right to do so. However, journalism’s obligation is to pursue truth and report, not withhold it. Shying away from difficult cases is not necessarily more ethical than taking on the challenge of reporting them. Leaving tough or sensitive stories to non-journalists can be a disservice to the public.

BuzzFeed can’t be accused of leaving this tough, sensitive story to others. But there’s more to journalism than the mere ability or willingness to publish potentially harmful information. And reporting requires more than acknowledging that something is unverified — but passing it along anyway.