Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 1999/11/26

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Subject: [Leica] Journalistic principles
From: "B. D. Colen" <>
Date: Fri, 26 Nov 1999 12:55:10 -0000

We forget
> that 99 percent of what we write about rarely rises above our paper's
> ultimate fate: wrapping fish and lining the bottom of bird
> cages.

Not only to I agree with this statement, it's an argument I used to make
with editors who didn't want to try something new, in terms of layout, art,
or even writing technique - so what if it doesn't work? It will be forgotten
by 6 p.m...HOWEVER...

We simply
> don't do that many "save the world" kinds of stories. So much
> of what we do
> involves ordinary people who, because of us, are experiencing
> their sole "15
> minutes of fame." Don't we owe it to them to get it right?

Yes - As I reporter one owes it to a source to "get it right. So, damnit,
GET IT RIGHT. Take accurate notes. Use a tape recorder. Be sure of what you
are hearing. In 23 words of writing thousands of stories, I NEVER had
someone claim I misquoted them or took something out of context. Did I ever
make factual errors? Of course. Were my stories always great, or even good?
Of course not? But did I ever screw someone because I got it wrong? No. Just
work carefully. And working on deadline is no excuse not to work carefully.
Nor is working on a small paper in a rural area any excuse to not adhere to
basic journalistic principles.

It is, of course, true, that most of the stories most of us write are about
common folks in common situations....But exceptions made in this area become
precedents. If I agree to show a story to Joe Blow, I have no moral ground -
and may have shaky legal ground on which to stand - when I refuse to show a
copy of a story to the FBI, Justice Department, or local police
department..,..and THAT is a precedent no journalist worth the name wants to

> Where we are
> significant is as the recorder of history. Fifty years from
> now people will
> look up what we read and expect it to be right. Accuracy
> checks ensure this.

NO - What insures this is making corrections if anyone points out an error
to you...The papers with which I am familiar make sure that every correction
is sent to the paper's library, and the correction is attached, with a note,
to the original clip - be that clip electronic or paper. So when one later
looks something up, one sees the error - and correction - flagged.

> But the ultimate justification for accuracy checks is that we
> do not, as this
> fella implies, give up any power. We simply consider what the
> subject has to
> say. We listen to his objections. We don't have to change
> anything. But we
> can. Often, the subject is right and we are wrong. We change
> those errors and
> in the process, the world, the first amendment and those 250 million
> Americans are served by it.

Sorry - But just wait until a local DA doesn't like the story you're written
about some crime, scandal, etc., and makes legal moves to block the
publication of your story...Yes, you may prevail...But at enormous expense
to the paper, expense that many small papers can ill afford. And because
they can ill afford the expense, in this day of corporate journalism and
ownership by folks who are committed to making a buck INSTEAD of making a
buck WHILE doing good journalism, you may see the story quietly die.
> This is an out-dated, ill-conceived "rule" in journalism.

The real problem with journalism today - which, in many many areas has sunk
to the level of the National Enquirer, is that too many people in the
business consider basic "rules" and principles "out-dated" and
"ill-conceived." Fifteen years ago leading papers such as the New York Times
and Washington Post wouldn't report on "rumors," they would either find a
way to confirm the rumors,and then run the facts, or they wouldn't run the
story. Today, alas, such is not the case.
> harms subjects
> and it harms us and our reputation. It's little wonder that
> journalists rate
> along with lawyers and used car salesmen in polls.
> One last comment: This fella says he worked for the
> Washington Post and that
> at that paper reading a subject a story could be a firing
> offense. Maybe it's
> just embellishment

NO - It's not...

but in both the book and the movie "All
> the President's
> Men"

Great source...

 Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein are
> depicted as calling
> the target of one of their stories (I believe it was John
> Mitchell) and
> reading him their story for his reaction and comment. If when
> the state of
> the union is at stake it's OK to accuracy check, why isn't it
> OK when dealing
> with some ordinary Joe feature story guy?

That exception was made for a number of very specific reasons -

1. The stories were all based on anonymous sources, which placed the
reporters and paper at higher than usual risk;
2. The paper was playing a VERY high stakes poker game with the government
of the United States, and was being threaten with economic and legal

3. The reporters were hoping to provoke Mitchell into a provocative
reaction - and they got it when he said that "Katie Graham is going to get
her tit caught in a wringer."

And, not to put to fine a point on it, but the "Fella" in question began as
a copyboy at The Washington Post in 1967, worked there as a reporter from
1970-1980 - receiving several Pulitzer nominations along the way - went to
Newsday in 1980 and was there until 1993, serving at various points as
Science Editor, Senior Correspondent for Science and Medicine, and medical
columnist, receiving several Pulitzer nominations, and winning a Pulitzer in
1984 as one of two lede reporters on the paper's coverage of the Baby Jane
Doe case.

The "Fella" as taught journalism at George Washington University, C.W. Post
College of Long Island University, and now teaches basic news writing and
science feature writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The
"Fella" also writes a column for Boston Magazine, has written 10 books, and
has contributed over the years to a number of national magazines.

> Bob (First, be a mensch) McEowen
> P.S. I apologize to the group for this sidetrack discussion
> into journalism
> "ethics." I have nothing more to say on the matter.