The Side of the Angels
The first voice-mail message of the morning was from a woman I’ve never met who delivered a lengthy tirade against journalism and journalists, including the fact that she has “long felt that journalists will print whatever they want to print . . . and they don’t particularly care whether the story is accurate.” Her particular beef was that a member of our editorial staff had — quite properly — turned down her request, which she said was made on behalf of her boss, to read — before publication — a story for which the boss had been interviewed.
Of course I shared her sentiments with colleagues in the office and we all shook our heads and agreed that people outside the profession simply don’t get journalism.
Almost exactly 12 hours before I found myself listening to this stranger tell me that she now has the same feelings about journalists that she has about salespeople (“pushy”), I was at a gathering attended by a number of journalists and government officials.
I got caught in the crossfire between a reporter from another publication and an official who were having a lively debate over some recent coverage. It was not angry, but certainly spirited. The official thought the reporter’s recent story had blown a particular incident out of proportion — to the detriment of the government he works for and obviously cares about. The reporter’s position was that it was a legitimate story; he felt he would have been shirking his duty to readers had he not reported on the incident. The official’s parting shot was, “I’ve learned never to argue with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
I thought the reporter had done a fine job and told him so. The story was fair, accurate and even-handed. We commiserated a bit over the fact that people are always anxious to seek out the media when doing so works to their advantage, but quick to find fault when the press covers something they don’t want to talk about.
Whatever other lessons there are to be learned from these personal experiences — and from recent events that have put journalism in the spotlight — it’s obvious that journalists have not been doing a very good job of educating the public about what we do and why we do it the way we do. We spend too much time talking among ourselves, just assuming that our motives and methodology will be generally understood and appreciated, even by people who occasionally feel a little heat.
I know, I know. There are bad journalists, just like there are bad hair stylists and bad architects and bad funeral directors; but the overwhelming majority of journalists are out to do a good job because they believe that what they are doing is important — getting good information, reporting accurately and fairly, telling the truth.
Do journalists make mistakes? Of course, like any other professionals whose jobs entail making dozens of judgment calls and decisions every day. Good journalists acknowledge their mistakes and correct them.
Because I wanted to be a journalist from the time I was in grade school and because I’ve spent a career surrounded by some of the best, it all seems pretty clear to me. How could people not understand that journalists are on the side of the angels?
Take, for instance, the caller’s question about why her boss can’t read the story in which he is quoted. The answer is simple: It’s not fair — not fair to the reader or to other people quoted in the story. Reporters and editors make informed, independent judgments about how to report a story. Allowing someone with a vested interest in the story to censor or “massage” the story interferes with its independence and changes it from a work of journalism to something more like public relations or marketing. That breaks the implied contract every journalist has with the reader to tell the story accurately and fairly. It’s important to honor that contract whether you’re writing about matters grave or trivial — new techniques in brain surgery or new lipstick colors for fall.
As for the government official who objects to a reporter writing about something embarrassing to his government? Well, reporting on the public’s business is the essence of responsible journalism. A government that operates in secret — no matter how well-intentioned its officials believe themselves to be — is a dangerous government.
It really is that simple.
Susan Percy is executive editor of Georgia Trend.