The Journalism Values We Live By
Long ago, as a college student studying media relations, I learned that no self-respecting communication professional would answer “no comment” to a reporter asking a question about virtually anything.
Saying “no comment” to a reporter is the journalism equivalent of pleading the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. It’s not a good look, and it rarely stops a conversation, instead motivating reporters to dig in further to discover and reveal whatever it is someone is trying not to discuss.
Reporters frequently contact people who would rather not talk to them. And, during the days of the pandemic when so little human-to-human contact has been taking place, it’s become even easier to simply ignore requests from reporters for interviews on topics people would rather duck. When this happens, reporters and their editors must decide how to proceed with a story that lacks a viewpoint or perspective from a source that they believe is important to the balanced treatment or full understanding of an issue.
The business of journalism is not a simple one.
Most often, a reporter will move forward with a story and convey to the public that they have reached out to an individual or organization and that they did not respond to, or declined, a request for an interview related to one of our stories. The JPR newsroom takes this approach only as a last resort after providing ample time for a response to an interview request. It’s the only reasonable course of action, since deciding not to cover an issue for lack of a response by a single source would incentivize subjects of news stories to ignore reporters as a way to squelch potentially unfavorable news coverage and avoid public scrutiny.
Sometimes, after we run a story about an issue that lacks a response from a key source because they declined, or didn’t respond to, an interview request, they complain that our story was unfair. When this occurs, we do our best to update the online version of our story by adding a response from an involved source using an “Editor’s Note” without changing our original reporting. We scrutinize these statements carefully and link primary documents whenever possible since these prepared statements fall outside our reporting process which includes checking facts, questioning claims and providing context.
JPR does not engage in “gotcha journalism,” a term media critics use to describe interviewing methods designed to entrap interviewees into making statements that are damaging or discredit their cause or character. Our aim is to find the strongest and most knowledgeable spokespeople on every side of every issue we cover, especially complex or controversial ones, and present fact-based perspectives for our audience so that our listeners can develop their own viewpoints, or decide to pursue further research on a particular issue. That doesn’t mean we don’t ask direct questions that an interviewee might not like or feels are confrontational. It does mean that our intent is always to find verifiable facts, and report them and to provide a fair venue for discussion of controversial issues.
The business of journalism is not a simple one. Many stories require analysis by reporters and editors before they are broadcast or published. And, while the circumstances of every story are usually quite distinct, all are guided by a common set of ethics, standards and principles. JPR adheres to several established codes of conduct, including the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and the Public Media Code of Integrity.
The Preamble of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states: “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough …” It further declares that four principles stand as “the foundation of ethical journalism.” These four principles are: “Seek Truth and Report It”; “Minimize Harm”; “Act Independently”; and “Be Accountable and Transparent.” This credo is prominently displayed on the wall of the JPR newsroom.
In an age when a record number of news consumers distrust the media, it’s more important than ever for journalists and news organizations to pull back the curtain on the decisions we make in the course of doing our work and the values we live by. I believe increasing the transparency of journalism from within our profession is an essential step toward gaining the trust of citizens.