Bleeding the Black ink

When bad things happen to good papers

It's been a rough month for newspapers and I'm sure there are a few editors and publishers out there who are glad to see that May is just about behind them.

By now, most people are familiar with Jayson Blair, the reporter for the New York Times who fabricated quotes and sources, plagiarized different publications and basically shattered every sacred tenant of journalism.

But at the beginning of the month, there was another incident right next door -- in Utah -- that nearly went under the radar screen.

Actually, the incident's roots stretch all the way back to July, when the National Enquirer published a story regarding kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart. The tabloid alleged that there had been sexual misconduct among family members.

The Smart family was outraged and called for an apology. The family also asked the Enquirer to reveal anonymous sources cited in the story and the tabloid fulfilled the requests.

Well, when the smoke finally cleared, the anonymous sources the tabloid used turned out to be two reporters from the Salt Lake Tribune.

The reporters accepted $10,000 each to discuss the Smart case with the tabloid as anonymous sources. They had been offered $100,000 to go on the record with the Enquirer.

According to the Pointer Institute, which is a school for journalism that promotes excellence and integrity, the reporters believed that since they were talking to the Enquirer on their own time and that they were assured their identities would not be revealed they would be safe.

While I have never been in such a position, I would think that journalists would know that when they play with a snake like the National Enquirer, they can expect to be bitten.

Well when all this came out earlier this month, the editor of the Tribune wrote a letter of apology to his readers.

"Strictly speaking, talking to the National Enquirer or others of like ilk, in and of itself, is neither illegal or unethical," Jay Shelledy wrote. "Rather, it is akin to drinking water out of a toilet bowl -- dumb, distasteful and, when observed, embarrassing."

But it goes beyond embarrassing.

The two reporters were fired and Shelledy ultimately resigned over the incident.

And readers have every reason now to doubt the credibility of the Tribune, something that isn't exactly fair to the rest of the reporters who work at that newspaper.

Reporters must look at their jobs as something beyond the 9 to 5, clock in, clock out routine.

I would put them in the same category as police officers or community leaders who have garnered the public trust.

Their character and behavior is scrutinized by the public whether they are on or off "the clock."

When they abuse that trust, there should be serious consequences.

What the Tribune reporters did was propagate false information through a tabloid and whether they did on or off "the clock" is irrelevant.

The damage caused went beyond the $20,000 in blood money that these reporters received.

Increasing and maintaining credibility among readers is the top priority for any newspaper worth the paper on which it is printed.

An interesting fact regarding the First Amendment is that the rights attached come absolutely free -- regardless of how responsible or irresponsible the practitioner of those rights are.

As pointed out by the Freedom Forum, you may lose the right "to bear arms," as granted by the Second Amendment if you are a convicted felon. But you can always pray, you can always speak out, you can always petition the government, you can always assemble and if you have a press you can practice your free-press rights.

That's not to say that if a newspaper is not responsible it will not go unpunished. Readers and advertisers reward or punish a publication all the time based on that publication's credibility.

"Bleeding the Black Ink" is a weekly column that aims at getting readers better acquainted with the Craig Daily Press, the First Amendment and the newspaper industry. Do you have a question or an issue for an upcoming column? Call Terrance Vestal at 824-7031 or email him at tvestal@craigdailypress.com.

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