On Journalism

The Newshour with Jim Lehrer went through a pretty big change recently. But the one thing they claim they won’t change is the integrity of the program. At the close of the “old” show, Lehrer said he was asked if there were any guidelines for the staff. His response:

  • Do nothing I cannot defend.
  • Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
  • Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
  • Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
  • Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
  • Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
  • Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
  • Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.
  • No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
  • And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

Not a bad list, this Michael Getler, ombudsman for PBS, had some issues with a few of them.

I agree that they are lofty goals and, while I agree with the sentiments of Getler when it comes to assuming certain people are, “as good a person as I am,” I really want to stick with Lehrer’s ideals. As journalists, I have believed it has been our goal to report what happened and explain, to the best of our ability, what it means. That context thing.

As a working journalist, I tried to never pass judgement on my subjects. At the same time, I probably put in some extra effort on stories I thought my readers would – or should – be interested in. Maybe I spent more time with a Framingham selectwoman because I thought her ideas were a little stronger, more representative of what I thought the town needed.

Maybe that was wrong, but it felt right at the moment. (And, for the record, the town agreed and elected her.)

Mark E. Johnson

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