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Home > Publications > Quill > Source credibility is part of our duty


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Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Source credibility is part of our duty

Andy Schotz

"When your sources are wrong, then you are wrong.”

Judith Miller used that phrase to defend her off-the-mark reporting with The New York Times on weapons of mass destruction.

It wasn’t her fault, said Miller, who became a symbol for a press that, in retrospect, didn’t press hard enough for answers as the U.S. was led into war.

While speaking at SPJ’s national convention in Las Vegas in 2005, Miller said sources from both political parties can make mistakes.

“They were wrong on WMD, and as a result my reporting was wrong,” she told hundreds of other journalists.

I’ve pondered Miller’s explanation and whether it’s actually so easy to distance yourself from your own work. Is there more to reporting than asking questions and printing responses? Don’t we quantify and qualify? Aren’t we skeptical?

I thought again about Miller’s theorem as I recently compiled a list of poor journalism ethics for the 12 months ending in September 2008.

This was the second straight year SPJ reminded the public of some of the questionable practices we’ve seen in the industry, looking at categories of indiscretions, such as coziness, conflicts of interest and plagiarism.

There was a strong thread — source credibility — between two of the most problematic examples on our compilation.

In April, a New York Times piece by David Barstow revealed a concerted effort by the Pentagon to “embed” retired military brass on network and cable news segments, giving commentary that was hardly neutral.

While serving as analysts for the news shows, the military officials had powerful conflicts of interest through their connections to the defense industry. Unbeknownst to the public, the Pentagon was using them as a “force multiplier” to get out the administration’s point of view.

Also atop our “worst of” list was what we called an “unhealthy alliance” between hospitals and local TV news stations. Some hospitals pay stations for the right to be the sole source on health stories, or create other arrangements that similarly blur the line between news and advertising.

This year, at SPJ’s national convention in Atlanta, we gave a journalism ethics award to Glen Mabie, who resigned as news director from WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wis., rather than go along with his station’s proposal for one of these alliances.

He was told that an area hospital was going to pay his station to air two “health news” segments per week. Only employees of this hospital could be used as sources for those stories.

In his speech, Mabie credited the other journalists in his newsroom, who continued fighting the station’s proposal, and winning, after he left. He extended his praise a step further, to journalism instructors who instilled those ethics in his co-workers.

Barstow also was with us in Atlanta. He was a panelist in an ethics session inspired by his exposé. Speaking publicly for the first time about his story, which was called “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” Barstow said it generated thousands of e-mails.

“It was like being in the middle of a tsunami,” he said.

Yet, the networks reacted as if the waters were calm. They ignored the story and their own role in the administration’s stealth effort to shape the country’s view of the war. Only CNN acknowledged any problem whatsoever, telling Barstow in a written statement that it hadn’t properly vetted an analyst whose job was pursuing military and intelligence contracts.

At our ethics session in Atlanta, we would have liked to have heard an amplification of this comment, but CNN, based in Atlanta, wouldn’t participate. I wonder if the networks now, or ever will, see that they were derelict in not disclosing vital context and connections to their viewers.

Will this happen again?

During our ethics session, Barstow reminded the audience of the Bush administration’s previous attempts to mask opinions as news, using video news releases. TV stations picked up these government-created segments and used them on the air as if they were staff-produced news, without disclaimers about where they came from.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics advises: “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability”; “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two”; and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

We must be trustworthy in our reporting and disseminating of news, which means finding and presenting credible sources, as we try to persuade the public that we, as news sources, are credible, too.

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