Bleeding the Black Ink

Getting the facts right and getting the right facts

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Just as physicians have a code of ethics -- "do no harm" -- so do journalists.

According to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, the obligation of the media is bound by the code that states, "Journalism's first obligation is to the truth."

Some journalism scholars say that the media must look beyond "fair and balanced" and "bias" to focus on the truth.

Of course, then, we have to define the "truth."

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Committee of Concerned Journalists, of which both Kovach and Rosenstiel are members, 100 percent of journalists interviewed said "getting the facts right" was paramount to their jobs.

But ask a dozen people what "truth" and "facts" are and you'll get a dozen different answers.

Oppressive societies tend to belittle literal definitions of truth and honesty.

Kovach and Rosenstiel point out that in the 14th Century, monks saw a hierarchy of truth with messages regarding the fate of the universe -- such as whether Heaven existed -- at the top of the hierarchy.

Next came moral truth, which taught people how to live. Allegorical truth, which taught morals through stories, followed by literal truth at the bottom of the food chain. The literal truth, theorists say, was usually meaningless and was irrelevant to life.

It seems that back in the 14th Century that these monks and the rulers of the day knew that facts, or the "literal truth," could get in the way of political and theological control.

The lesson learned then is still being applied by totalitarian societies around the world.

One might say that if you silence the truth then you are free to rule however he or she wants.

This is why when a military coup occurs, radio stations, television stations and newspaper printing presses are often the first targets in a take over.

The strive for accuracy in newspaper can be traced back to the earliest ideas of a democracy. A newspaper that would provide information and that would also be free of government influence.

Historically, newspapers are faced with the challenges of being labeled "scandalous," or "sensational," because of specific details in news stories.

Such is a case illustrated in a 1984 Columbia University Journalism Review article by Cassandra Tate who described how the New York World's Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play worked. An ombudsman of the bureau noticed a pattern in the newspaper's reporting on shipwrecks in that each such story included a cat that had survived. When asked about the coincidence, the reporter said, "One of those wrecked ships had a cat, and the crew went back to save it. I made the cat a feature of my story, while the other reporters failed to mention the cat, and were called down by their city editors for being beaten. The next time there was a shipwreck, there was no cat but the other ship news reporters did not wish to take a chance, and put the cat in. I wrote the report, leaving out the cat, and then I was severely chided for being beaten. Now when there is a shipwreck all of us always put in the cat."

Did the embellishment of the cat distort the story of the shipwreck? To some extent yes it did. But the hard news facts of those who were rescued and those who perished always rang true.

Was getting "beaten" a good excuse for distorting the truth? Of course not.

At the Craig Daily Press, we take our jobs seriously in reporting the news to our readers. This means that the only cat our readers will see in a story, will be the cat that was actually at the event.

Such anecdotes lead to the public's view of reporters being "ambulance chasers" and "yellow" journalists.

Since the turn of the century, when "yellow" seemed to be all the rage for newspapers, sensationalism has taken a downward spiral although it is by no means extinct, which is why we see white Broncos on our television screens for five hours straight.

But the responsibility to tell the truth regarding the news that impacts Moffat County is still our ultimate goal. We not only want to get the right facts but get the right facts when telling a story.

"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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