Journalism should happen without fear or favor
It was Adolph S. Ochs who, after taking over the New York Times in 1896, wrote that the Times would conduct its business “without fear or favor.”
He was telling his reporters that they should do their jobs without worrying what those they wrote about might do to them or the Times in retribution. And they should do their jobs for the readers and for history, not for their friends or the politicians they support or because they expect any reward from their subjects.
In the last 122 years, Ochs’ words have become a bedrock principle of Western journalism, and that’s what separates newspapers in America and other democracies from the state-controlled outlets in some other nations.
To wit: Last month, Politico detailed how government-controlled media overseas temper coverage of the U.S. administration so as not to bruise President Donald Trump’s ego and incur his wrath (read the story here: https://tinyurl.com/yb4b7gbv).
But there are violations of the Ochs credo here in the U.S.
The same day Politico’s story posted, The Daily Beast filed a story about producers at “Fox & Friends” regularly allowing Scott Pruitt, then head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to choose interview topics and even approve scripts before he went on air (that story can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/y8p3u8f2).
To be fair, “Fox & Friends” doesn’t really bill itself as a straightforward news program. It falls more into the category of “news talk show,” in which the hosts exchange opinions with their guests in conversational exchanges, rather than journalistic grilling.
Still, allowing a subject to dictate the terms of an interview makes that segment little more than a free ad for the subject.
And, when it is a high-ranking government official doing the dictating, that makes the segment little more than government propaganda.
It certainly isn’t news.
Fox officials told The Daily Beast the Pruitt situation “is not standard practice whatsoever and the matter is being addressed internally with those involved.”
To be clear, it’s important to be courteous and respectful of sources. “Gotcha journalism” is unethical, too.
When I have set up interviews with government officials in the past, for example, I have sometimes offered them — in advance — a broad-stroke summary of the topics I wanted to cover in the interview. That’s usually so they could, if necessary, make available the appropriate deputies or officials with the expertise to answer my questions.
When the topics at hand are particularly complex, technical, or data-driven, I have even submitted some specific questions in advance to give a source time to track down answers. I don’t know off the top my head every number or formula or historical fact relevant to my job, and I wouldn’t expect them to, either.
Plus, I want to provide my readers those answers, not some criticism that a department head doesn’t know the answer.
I always, however, make clear to sources that I reserve the right to ask follow-up questions. When sources don’t know the answers to technical questions they ought to know — after I’ve given them a fair amount of time to track down the answer — I have written so.
I’ve also reported when sources have refused to answer follow-up questions.
It’s also OK — nay, good tradecraft — to sometimes read subjects specific portions of a story before it’s published, to check for accuracy. Especially when the topic is highly technical, it’s good for reporters to make sure they’ve phrased things correctly. If a story accuses someone of a specific wrongdoing, it’s good to read the accused the exact language of the accusation, so they can respond specifically to what you’re about to report.
And I have — on very, very rare occasion — held on to information at the request of a source. The perfect example of that is when police withhold names because they don’t want family members to find out about a loved one’s death from a newspaper article.
The key in all of those scenarios, however, is that I always make clear to sources they can make requests, but the final decision about what and when to print is mine and my editors’.
If they tell me something’s inaccurate, but I can prove it’s right, I print it. If they can’t convince me that publishing a piece of information would harm the public interest, I print it. If they refuse to provide a specific piece of information, I say so in print or fight tooth and nail to get it. Or both.
That’s what makes the press free, and that’s what makes it journalism, instead of propaganda.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.