Journalists generally agree that they are on a mission to find the truth. Not The Truth. That’s the job of philosophers and theologians. Rather, what journalists are after is the everyday truth, or truths, that have an impact on our lives.
The mission of seeking the truth about our lives – facts, context, points of view, etc. – determines both the attitudes and the processes by which journalists work. We will discuss some of the most important of these in this section and group them under the general heading of “professional values.”
One of the most important of these professional values is the seeking of accurate information that has an effect on people and that can interest and entertain them. Journalists see themselves as observers of their society, trying not to take sides in a controversy but rather acting as independent witnesses. By the very nature of gathering information and observing human interactions, they must often make interpretations and judgments. But they consider these judgments secondary to their really important job, which is to uncover information and present it to an audience in an interesting and understandable form.
As such, one of the professional values that is highly important to the journalist is verification of information. Verification means that information comes from the most expert and reliable sources and that it can be generally agreed upon within that circle of sources. We will devote much more attention to the concept and process of verification in a later section of this course. (2.2 Verification <link>)
Another value of the journalist is fairness. The journalist recognizes that life is full of conflict, opposing ideas and differing points of view. Sometimes these differences are minor and of little consequence. Sometimes they are enormous and create violent conflict among people are groups. The journalist, as much as possible, tries to weigh differing opinions and points of view sympathetically and rationally. The journalist tries to see an event or idea without having a personal interest. This is not always easy. Journalists are not only human but they are also individuals within a society. They join groups, they have friends and families, and they have attitudes about right and wrong as everyone else does. Journalists recognize their own foibles when they are in the process of doing journalism.
From these efforts flows the idea of independence. Journalists, and the organizations for which they work, should not dependent on the individuals or organizations they cover. While many news organizations accept advertising revenues as a means of economic survival, they try not to let advertisers influence the type of news coverage they give events and ideas. Journalists are generally forbidden to accept gifts or things of value from those people they are covering.
The idea of public service (which we discussed in 1.1 Definitions <link>) is an important part of the way journalists see themselves and their work. Journalists work very hard. The hours are often long and the tasks frustrating. Generally, they do not make a lot of money (although one can, as a journalist, make a very good living). What drives journalists is not the thought of making a lot of money, achieving high status or an easy lifestyle. Rather, it is the idea that journalists can contribute to making society better – giving people information they can us to make good decisions about their own lives, uncovering the wrongs that may be occurring in society or contributing to the marketplace of ideas.
Competitiveness is another value of journalists, although it is one that is never discussed very much. Journalists like to be first with information they present to their audiences. That’s called “breaking a story,” and when a journalist and news organization breaks an important story, they take enormous pride in doing so. This drive for “bragging rights,” if you will, is highly important within the profession, although it is one that journalists do not discuss publicly very much because they believe that their audiences are not terribly interested.
In this sense, journalists share a respect for others in their profession and for the general values and practices of the profession. But they do not always agree about the particulars of those practices or about how other journalists act. Debates among journalists about those values and practices are taking place constantly. To get an idea of some of those debates, listen to the radio program On the Media (http://onthemedia.org). You will hear journalists commenting on and critiquing the work of other journalists and trying to discover the best ways to practice their profession.
In the next section, we will discuss some of the personal attributes that it takes to become a journalist. Have you got what it takes?
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