In the managing editor’s office, there was a dog-eared piece of paper affixed to the top of a small box on his desk. On that paper were three words written in red: “Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy.” I remember sitting across from him in that office, staring at that paper, knowing our entire operation hinged on those three words. Though I never worked a day at that newspaper in which that managing editor didn’t intimidate the hell out of me (think a skinny Lou Grant minus the big-cuddly-teddy-bear side), those three words made me realize that the integrity of our reporters and editors was the lifeblood of our news organization. Woe to any living soul in that newsroom who might even think about embellishing the facts or pushing an agenda, no matter how subtle.
Every day at around 5 p.m., we held a story budget meeting. Easily the most important 45 minutes of the workday. This was the time when all the editors would gather to discuss which of the day’s stories would make the front page of the next morning’s paper. Each editor would “pitch” their story and talk about why they felt it was worthy of A1 placement.
These daily story budget meetings were also, perhaps most importantly, a time of “checks and balances” for editors who were deciding what our readers would see on the front page. Editors would play devil’s advocate with one another, asking tough questions about why a given story was newsworthy, what were the most important angles of the story, and who was being served by covering this story? I witnessed countless serious discussions in which editors would argue and agonize over whether a story was fair, unbiased and ethical. As graphics editor, I had not had any formal journalistic training like my colleagues, but I learned to respect and admire these people for their deep commitment to truth, accuracy, and making sure the general public was aware of what was going on in their world so they could make informed decisions.
Fast-forward 20 years to the 24-hour news cycle in which ratings are king and “fake news” abounds. These days, it would probably be difficult for the average American to imagine editors sitting around debating the ethical merits of any story. But I can assure you, they still do. Truth still matters. Accuracy still matters. Solid, agenda-free reporting matters more than ever.
I bristle and feel personally offended every time someone uses the term “disgusting, dishonest media” because that used to be me. Most days, I wish it was still me. And the offense slithers deeper into me when these insults are hurled at venerable news organizations that dare to print accounts of events or speeches that, while true, come across as unflattering to the subject.
Are there some news organizations that have an agenda they’re not afraid to push? Certainly. Left or right? Of course! Especially in our current environment, every American should be concerned about the validity of the news they are consuming. But that doesn’t mean that any news item you come across is fake news just because you disagree with it or find it unpalatable.
One of my favorite college professors used to tell us: “As a professor, my job is to profess. Your job, as a student, is to go out and do your own research and figure out if I’m right.” As citizens and consumers of news, our job is similar. Do some fact-checking, maybe a little investigative work, to find out which news organizations are trustworthy. Not which ones you agree with, but which ones are trustworthy. There’s a big difference. And remember, one of the hallmarks of any democracy is a free press and, hopefully, a citizenry that isn’t too lazy to think critically, ask questions, and form their own opinions independently.