11/08/2005

Repairing Journalism - by Sydney H. Schanberg

When reporters agree with government officials not to disclose their identity, both sides are making a compact. Reporters are agreeing not to reveal who the sources are or even what government or agency they work for. And the sources, in return, are agreeing to tell reporters, yes, the truth.

What that meant to me was that if they told lies and I could demonstrate through solid reporting that they knew they had lied, then they had broken the compact and I was freed from my grant of confidentiality.


Repairing Journalism
Plamegate made some major flaws transparent. Time for a transparent solution.

by Sydney H. Schanberg

With the Plamegate story having exposed nearly all of the weaknesses of the press (just as it has exposed the failures of an American presidency), this is one of those overhaul times for journalism. My thoughts focus almost entirely on newspaper reporting, since that's where I've spent my nearly 50 years as a journalist and that's what I know about. But it's fairly obvious that television news, radio, blogging, and government information services suffer from similar, or worse, ills.

Journalism's most serious failure, probably, is its reluctance to explain how reporters go about putting together a news story. A large percentage of news stories, for example, begin with a public relations announcement from a government agency, private advocacy group, politician, corporation, celebrity, or other publicity seeker. Sometimes the finished products that appear in a paper are little more than slightly tweaked rewrites of the original press releases. That is known as bad journalism. But we don't talk about it. Even superior newspapers don't write about such things, out of fear that their critics, or the general public, will use this candor against them.

This lack of openness about our tradecraft—this non-transparency—is really the mother of most of the press's troubles. Consider the Plame-gate saga. It cried out for major news stories explaining in detail how reporters in Washington and elsewhere deal with confidential sources and why they give them confidentiality and what the pitfalls are.

It's my guess that if this candor were displayed on a regular basis, reporters would automatically reduce the frequency of the confidentiality grant. We know that in some stories, such as national security matters, confidentiality is crucial if the reporter is to protect a genuine whistle-blower and get the information to the public. But we also know that often it is granted when government officials simply want to spread self-serving accusations or dirt.

...
Here's the conflict in such situations. The press calls for transparency by government, corporations, and everyone else. But here the reporters reject transparency for themselves, and yet they say they are practicing good journalism. The public needs a fuller explanation, and that can only come from the reporters themselves.

...tell the public, whose "right to know" we are forever invoking, how we go about our work... there's something out of whack if we [reporters] go around demanding accountability from others and don't impose the same level of accountability on ourselves.

Transparency is the overarching issue. And confronting the problem of anonymous sources, because they are anything but transparent, is a key. While in Indochina during the Vietnam War, after endless off-the-record briefings where half-truths and lies were told, I came to a new view of government disinformation. And this is it: When reporters agree with government officials not to disclose their identity, both sides are making a compact. Reporters are agreeing not to reveal who the sources are or even what government or agency they work for. And the sources, in return, are agreeing to tell reporters, yes, the truth.

What that meant to me was that if they told lies and I could demonstrate through solid reporting that they knew they had lied, then they had broken the compact and I was freed from my grant of confidentiality. And in one instance, in Cambodia, I concluded the compact had been broken and I wrote a story exposing the falsehoods. Not all my press colleagues agreed with my decision. One said that I should have told him and the other reporters at the briefing that I was going to write such a story. In retrospect, I think perhaps he was right. But my regrets are small, because it was my readers who had claim to my first loyalty.

village voice > news > Press Clips by Sydney H. Schanberg

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home