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Editorially Speaking

July/August 1999

Gannett Co. Inc.

Vol. 53 No. 4

Seeking truth is core of Principles
Timeliness not compromised if conduct is ethical



THE ISSUE: Journalism essentially is about the truth. Ethical journalists seek the truth; they try to tell the truth; they try to describe the truth; and they try to act in a truthful way.

That is why "truth" is the first of the Gannett Newspaper Division's five Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms.

Since we are talking about what amounts to a moral imperative for journalists, allow me to quote from the New Testament according to John:

"Truth?" said Pilate. "What is that?"

Indeed, as the participants in a Nashville focus group on ethics said: Whose truth? How can we know truth?

These are legitimate questions, which is why the Truth Principle is phrased as something that we "seek."

In some cases, we will not know whether it has been obtained. But if we conduct ourselves ethically in our quest, we are more likely to get there -- or at least close to it -- than if we do not.

The idea that there are different "truths" is not exactly correct. There are different opinions about what is truth.

We generally have a responsibility to reflect those different opinions -- or "sides." The items under the Truth Principle, and the amplification in the Principles, spell out at least what truth is not. It is not lying, fabricating, plagiarizing, slanting, selectively using facts, inadequately informing ourselves, and so forth.

In her book "Lying," the philosopher Sissela Bok writes: "The whole truth is out of reach. But this fact has very little to do with our choices about whether to lie or to speak honestly, about what to say and what to hold back....

"If arrogance there be, it lies rather in the immobilizing impatience with all that falls short of the 'whole truth.' This impatience helps explain why the contemporary debate about deception is so barren. Paradoxically, the reluctance to come to grips with deception can stem from an exalted and all-absorbing preoccupation with truth."

The original brainstorming group spent more time debating deceptive practices -- the opposite of "truth" -- than any other issue, with the possible exception of unnamed sources.

But we were fortunate to have among us Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co. and a former Pulitzer-Prize winning editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Fuller, who recently was elected co-chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, wrote in 1996 a wonderful book called "News Values."

The premise of his book is not especially new, but it is especially well thought out.

Journalism essentially is about the truth. Truth is the central premise on which we operate. We seek the truth. We try to tell the truth. We try to describe the truth. We try to act in a truthful way.

This is why truth is the first of the five Principles. In fact, many of the other ideas embraced by the other Principles -- such as fairness and integrity -- flow from this same notion of truth telling.

There were two issues at the heart of the brainstorming group's debate about whether we could honestly live up to a full commitment to the truth.

s First, a practical one: How can we tell the "whole" story given the daily rush to deadline? It is clear that we do not intend that every story be held until all facts are gathered. That is history, not journalism.

These Principles were written for daily newspapers, recognizing the imperatives of deadlines and limitations of newshole. This is the reality within which journalists work. These Principles do not change that reality. Rather, they ask journalists to balance the need for getting the story first and writing it tightly, with the public's need for accurate information in a context that they can understand.

Some facts cannot be determined on deadline, leaving it to the judgment of reporters and editors to determine what -- if anything -- can be written on deadline.

Consider the third item under the Truth Principle: "We will be persistent in the pursuit of the whole story."

Or the amplification on fair play in the Protections, which recognizes that responses may not be attainable on deadline. Both sections urge a continued drive to continue reporting after the first story is written in order, ultimately, to provide the "whole story."

Walter Lippmann, the great New York World editor and syndicated columnist whose career spanned nearly three-quarters of this century, wrote: "The theory of a free press is that the truth will emerge from free reporting and free discussion, not that it will be presented perfectly and instantly in any one account."

s The second issue we debated had to do with deceptive practices.

Deceptive practices, including undercover reporting, have a long and rich tradition in journalism. Re-reading "All the President's Men," I was struck by how fast and loose Woodward and Bernstein played the game. There were occasions when they lied. There were occasions when they misrepresented themselves. In their view, these were innocent tactics in support of a noble purpose.

Another way of expressing it is: The end justifies the means. It doesn't sound so hot when you say it that way, does it?

As a group, the brainstorming participants came to reject deceptive tactics as a legitimate tool of reporting. Whatever good might have come from such tactics, there also was a sense that the story could have been obtained in more conventional ways.

During our discussions, Jane Amari, executive editor of The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., expressed this idea eloquently: "Whoever gave us the right to do good by doing bad?"

And yet, our brainstorm group debated whether we could live up to the idea that "we will not deceive." Ultimately, we said: "We will not misstate our identities or intentions."

There is a distinction between actively deceiving someone and just not identifying yourself as a reporter. In my view, active deception -- masquerading as someone you are not, fraudulently filling out an employment application -- is just plain wrong and possibly illegal.

Are you passively deceiving someone by not announcing you are a reporter? The argument could be made. And yet, why can't a reporter observe what anyone else can observe?

If a meeting is public, if the property is public, if access to a record is public, reporters have the same rights to be there without identifying themselves as any other citizen.

A good example is the investigation by the Gannett New Jersey Newspapers into state public records access this year.

Reporters and other newspaper employees filed Freedom of Information requests at 601 governmental agencies to determine if they complied with the law.

The employees did not identify themselves as reporters or state their reason for seeking the information other than they were "interested" in local affairs. State law does not require employment identification or a reason for seeking information, so the reporters did not volunteer it.

They did not lie, however. Those who were asked, acknowledged that they worked for a newspaper. In my opinion, this met the standard of not misstating identity or intention.

But let's face it. Many undercover stories are nothing more than stunts.

Her is one last thought from Walter Lippmann:

"News and truth are not the same thing and must be clearly distinguished. The function of news is to signalize an event; the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other and make a picture of reality on which one can act." s

Larry Beaupre is a news executive in the Gannett Newspaper Division. 

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