• ETHICS: Independence and credibility

When Walter Cronkite died at the age of 92 in the summer of 2009, he was hailed as “the most trusted man in America.”

Cronkite was a journalist. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was the anchorman for the CBS Evening News. That was an era before the Internet and the World Wide Web when the United States had only three major television networks, and when each network produced a single 30-minute news broadcast each day. (CNN, the first 24-hour television news channel, did not begin operation until 1980.)

Cronkite had a mustachioed round face and a deep, sonorous voice that was easy to listen to. He delivered the news in a comfortable tone each evening in a way that was often serious and sometimes wryly humorous. Whatever his tone, it always seemed to fit the moment, and many people thought of him as one of the family who came into their homes each evening to tell them about the day’s events.

Cronkite had spent his working life as a journalist, first with the United Press International wire service and then with CBS news. He had covered World War II for CBS under the famous Edward R. Murrow, one of the great pioneer’s of radio and television news.

The CBS Evening News, with Cronkite at the helm, was the most watched news broadcast of the three major networks. When Cronkite spoke, people believed him. They viewed him as someone who would tell them the truth, someone who did not care who was in power or what the personal consequences might be for reporting discomforting facts.

That’s how Walter Cronkite got to be “the most trusted man in America.” He was independent of those people and interests that he reported on. He never appeared to want to be anything but a truthful journalist. And people believed him.

Cronkite’s credibility and reputation was the product of a different age. It is doubtful that, in this era of 24-hour news and the din of attitudes and opinions that are shouted on television and the web, any journalist (or anyone else) could achieve the title of “most trusted.”

Journalists should maintain a strict independence from the people and institutions they cover – even at the highest levels of government – so they can challenge them to produce truthful information.

Even vaunted news organizations such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have critics who maintain web sites that zero in on the mistakes they make and are happy to attribute those mistakes to political bias or to a willingness to bend the truth to fir their points of view. Even Walter Cronkite would not be immune to that kind of scrutiny were he alive and working as a journlist today.

Still, the moniker of “most trusted” is the one that journalists, in both theory and practice, should strive for.

Journalists want to be read and heard. Most of all, they want to be believed. Credibility is the most preciouse quality a journalist can acquire.

How can they do this?

Journalists should always make it clear to their readers where they are coming from – that is, the organization for which they are working and the interest they have in the subject or the event. Ideally, journalists work for economically independent news organizations or freelance for themselves. But that is not always the case, and journalists must eat and making a living just like everyone else.

But journalists must make it clear where their payments are coming from and what their interests are in the topics, people and events they write about. They should say if they have connections with the people or organizations in their stories. All of this is called full disclosure, and a journalist should never hesitate to reveal this information.

Here are some other ways that journalists enhance their credibility:

  • Redriecting attention from themselves to their work and the content of their reports. Journalists should not be the center of attention and should avoid becoming participants in the stories that they cover. Public arguments between journalists and their sources should be avoided.
  • Never accepting gifts, meals, tickets to events or anything else of value from sources or individuals and organizations they cover. Journalists do not want to be in a position of owing their sources anything, even a favor.
  • Avoiding friendships with sources. Such relationships make honest reporting harder, and they make convincing the audience that the reporting is honest almost impossible.
  • Never promising coverage in exchange for cooperation. This is tricky. Sources often cooperate because they believe the journalist will write a story about a subject of their interest. Journalists should recognize and understand this feeling, but they should not make overt promises about coverage in order to get a source to reveal information.
  • Acknowledging mistakes and shortcomings and taking responsibility for them. Journalists are humans, after all, and they will make mistakes. Journalists should freely admit their mistakes, apologize and correct them when appropriate and possible, and renew efforts to avoid them.
  • Never promising to allow sources to review a story before it is published. Sometimes a source will make this a condition of cooperation: a journalist must promise to let the source read the story before it is published or posted. Journalists should refuse such requests. Cooperating in this way opens a journalist up to criticism that he or she is giving special favors or consideration to a source.

Journalists should practice their profession with an attitude of honesty, openness, humility and inclusiveness. They should not be combative with their sources, but they must always remember that they are the public’s representative in many situations. The public deserves the best they have.

 

Accurate information and independence in gathering it translate into credibility, and credibility is the Holy Grail of the journalist.

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