A journalist's duty: Getting to the truth through verification not bias

Longtime investigative reporter Tom Witosky reflects on “the essence of good journalism” and the “crisis of conscience” recent trends have caused in the media sector. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Two Iowa State students approached me after a campus news conference in 2003 during which Gregory Geoffrey, then the school’s president, explained why he fired Larry Eustachy, who was the school’s men’s basketball coach.

“You’re a Hawkeye aren’t you?” one of them asked as if to be let in on a big secret.

After all, the students suggested, that would be the only reason why someone would write a story and publish pictures of Eustachy drinking and partying with college students into the early morning hours while on road trips.

It wasn’t the first time that question or its corollary – “You’re a Cyclone aren’t you?”- had been asked. During my 25 years of investigative sports reporting for the Des Moines Register, many stories incurred the wrath of Iowa and Iowa State fans. This time my reporting on Eustachy’s on-the-road shenanigans had cost him his job.

The memory of that conversation 13 years ago remains a vivid one. It remains high in my recollections because it’s the same accusation that’s heard daily about media bias or lack of objectivity in covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

Last week, Donald Trump increased spewing his vitriol against various news organizations, particularly the New York Times, by going beyond his routine description of every newspaper as “failing” and every media organization as dishonest. A recent Tweet from Trump even branded reporters as the “lowest form of humanity.”

This attack coincides with August polling data nationally and in states considered vital to the outcome of the race showing the Republican’s campaign teetering on becoming one of the worst in U.S. political history. Like many politicians, Trump’s first response is to raise questions about reporters’ credibility – a move that is now apparently prompting his supporters to confront reporters at his rallies by calling them traitors among other things.

On the other side, Hillary Clinton’s refusal to submit to reporter questions during news conferences comes from the Clinton political machine’s playbook written back when the Clintons were dealing with the so-called bimbo eruptions of late 1991 and 1992. Some would suggest the attacks of the right wing justify it, but what is being interpreted as a refusal to be held accountable has raised justifiable questions about how she might perform if she wins the presidency.

With these kinds of attacks, the media’s role and its real and perceived biases in a presidential campaign are getting substantial attention. My friend, Laura Belin, recently answered whether Bleeding Heartland portends to be an objective news website. Her response was direct in that she rejected the premise of objectivity because “story selection, framing, etc. introduce some level of subjectivity” in a journalistic decision.

She acknowledged a commitment to gather facts accurately but concluded that by acknowledging her bias readers can judge the credibility of her work through that prism.

I frame the role of journalism differently by embracing the model developed by Bill Kovach, (one of my mentors), and Tom Rosentiel in their book, The Elements of Journalism. In that book, the two outlined 10 principles of journalism that reflect a common sense but principled commitment to excellence in journalism. Those principles can be found here: https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/elements-journalism/

In its principles, the two news veterans argue that the essence of good journalism is the discipline of verification – a methodology that requires reporters to subject information to rigorous testing for truthfulness and to acknowledge how that information has been tested so that readers can determine its validity. As Kovach and Rosentiel wrote: “The method is objective, the journalist is not.”

Last week’s controversy over Trump’s accusation that President Obama was the founder of the Islamic State In Syria (ISIS) and the controversy over e-mails showing communication between members of the Clinton Foundation staff and a top member of Clinton’s staff at the U.S. State Department provide excellent examples.

As Trump continued to insist on Obama’s duplicity with ISIS, reporters talked to Middle East and intelligence experts who pointed out that Trump’s assertion simply wasn’t accurate. Ultimately, Trump’s acknowledged his inaccuracy but then attacked reporters for taking him at his word and not accepting it as hyperbolic exaggeration or sarcasm designed to attract voter attention.

Meanwhile, reporters looking into the recent disclosures of Clinton Foundation took the story as far as they could at this point. Cheryl Mills, a top Hillary Clinton aide at the State Department, did meet with two candidates for an executive position at the Clinton Foundation, thus raising more questions about a symbiotic relationship between the foundation and the State Department.

But, the State Department and the Clinton campaign pointed out that Secretary Clinton was not involved in the meeting and that Mills paid her own expenses and used personal time to participate in the interviews. For Clinton critics, this is more evidence to justify their concerns of the Clintons established a pay-for-play scheme operated at out of the State Department; for Clinton supporters, this is just another round of right-wing criticism without any evidence of wrongdoing.

Those who are committed to verification understand these gambits, particularly in this age of spin — a euphemism for deception. Top-notch reporters are required to develop information for a story using as many sources with as widely divergent points of view as possible. In addition, that information must be vetted again and again to provide the context that makes the story understandable to the consumer.

Contrary to public opinion, most reporters come to their jobs every day looking for the best story they can do, not whether they can write for someone who agrees with their point of view. If there is solid evidence of a Clinton pay-for-play scheme, it will eventually be disclosed without hesitation. The problem for Clinton critics is that no smoking gun has surfaced as yet.

More than 40 years of reporting taught me to focus always on the precision of a story — the accuracy and depth of the information disclosed, putting the information into the correct context and making sure all sides in the story were treated fairly. Execution of a story is what matters to good reporters, not whether the content coincides with a viewpoint.

Over the years, some folks have suggested that kind of detachment is impossible. In response, I often quote a line from the movie Three Days of the Condor. “It’s quite restful,” Joubert, a professional assassin, says when asked if his profession is tiring. “It’s almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side or any side. There is no cause. There’s only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.” His vocation could be professional golf and the point remains the same. It’s precision that matters.

But this reporting task has become more difficult, particularly for local newspapers with circulations below 250,000.

Dramatic changes in technology have created a crisis of conscience within the journalism industry. The internet coupled with the purchase of most newspapers and television stations by publicly held corporations has prompted a change in the industry as profound as the invention of the automobile to horse-drawn buggy.

The result for newspapers has been huge declines in gross revenues, particularly classified advertising, and circulation. To maintain profit margins, these corporations have reduced staff sizes and, for most local newspapers upon which residents rely, those staffing positions have been cut almost in half, according to a 2015 job census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Those deep cuts hit hardest on local reporting of the institutions that impact a community’s residents the most. Where a newspaper like the Des Moines Register once had multiple reporters covering City Hall, the county, the courts, the legislature, state agencies, often there is one reporter or no reporters covering them except when something scandalous occurs.

The result is to place heavier demands on the remaining reporters, who largely are less experienced than those whom they replaced, and are required to spend more time on tasks irrelevant to verification of facts but considered vital in a digital age – the shooting of video and maintaining a presence on social media.

Delving deeply into a tip or a hunch that could turn a major story becomes increasingly difficult because of those demands. As a result, potentially good stories that take time are not pursued or are placed on the back burner to wait “until we have time to look into it deeper.” Often, that time never arrives.

In its place, reporters by necessity go after low-hanging stories that generate more controversy than understanding and emphasize continual conflict as opposed to resolution. That is precisely what Trump has done since he announced his candidacy with his various outbursts – some of them accurate, some of them false.

Blogs such as Bleeding Heartland attempt to fill that void as best they can. Unfortunately, those efforts are dependent on individuals taking on issues because of their interest or a commitment to helping the community to improve. Those efforts are to be praised, but also should be analyzed on the basis of the commitment to verification of fact done ethically and transparently.

That is what the public should expect from journalists – a continual commitment to go after facts and to verify them accurately.

That’s why my answer to the two Iowa State students wondering about my school loyalty still makes me smile after all these years.

“Well, my Dad went to Iowa and my Mom went to Iowa State,” I told them as they leaned in closer for the big answer. “I went to Wisconsin. F*ck ‘em Bucky.”

Witosky retired from the Des Moines Register in 2012 after spending much of his 33 years as an investigative reporter in sports, politics, and business. He is also the co-author of Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led America to Marriage Equality

  • this post really made me think

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. My impression is that most journalists understand the concept of “objectivity” to mean not betraying any opinion about the subject. Hence the “View From Nowhere” derided by Jay Rosen, for good reason. Too many reporter think the work is done if the story reflects “both sides,” with no effort to signal to readers whose version of reality better fits the facts. In fairness to journalists, a lot of political advocates have done a great job of working the refs over the years by alleging media bias any time a news report reflects poorly on their side.

    I like the framework of objectivity as applied to the method, not the journalist.

  • one question comes to mind

    After reading this comment: “most reporters come to their jobs every day looking for the best story they can do, not whether they can write for someone who agrees with their point of view.”

    I agree that the overwhelming majority of journalists are trying to do good work. But with so much riding on clicks and views these days, the “best story” to spend time on may not look like the kind of story a reporter would have chased 20 or 30 years ago. When I was covering Russian politics, my colleagues and I had literally no information about which stories engaged more readers. We tried to cover what seemed like the most important news every day, unencumbered by any thoughts about traffic.

    I’m thinking about last summer’s disastrously wrong New York Times scoop about Hillary Clinton. Everyone makes mistakes, but mercifully, most journalists will never mess up a story as badly as Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt bungled that one. It was a train wreck on many levels, yet the New York Times editors basically said oops, our sources misled us. And Apuzzo is a Pulitzer prize winner! He knows he’s supposed to verify what anonymous sources tell him.

    That wasn’t the only New York Times scoop that Apuzzo and Schmidt got badly wrong last year.

    How would you explain that kind of malpractice by otherwise capable journalists? I think Jon Allen got it right in his piece on “The media’s 5 unspoken rules for covering Hillary.” Reporters on the Clinton beat known, “Want to drive traffic to a website? Write something nasty about a Clinton, particularly Hillary.” I believe it because the highest-traffic Bleeding Heartland post (among more than 7,000 published over nine and a half years) was essentially a long list of negative statements about Hillary Clinton.

    Knowing that traffic numbers will figure prominently in the next performance review, journalists may not choose a story in order to write “for someone who agrees with their point of view,” but they may choose a topic they see as more likely to go viral. And in the rush to be first with that big story, the rigorous testing that’s so important to the journalistic method may fall by the wayside.

    • Faustian bargains

      You point out accurately the result of the major changes in the industry. 1) The use of anonymous sources is dangerous and often self-serving to those being quoted without being held accountable. The use of sources like that should be severely limited, but unfortunately, news organizations and their reporters give in to competitive pressures and to the demands of those they cover. This can and does result in huge embarrassments like the one you mentioned. 2) The emphasis on getting stories to go viral reminds me of the old business adage: “When the steak isn’t good, you sell the sizzle.” The staff reductions throughout the industry have forced many news organizations to do just that. To make big deals of stories that really aren’t to be able to feed the monster and keep the website clicks up.

  • The true culprit for reduced journalistic standards

    From my perspective as a journalist from 1983-2002, the beginning of the end for traditional journalism was not the spread of the Internet but rather the spread of newspaper ownership by publicly-traded companies. The idea that profit margins must inexorably increase year-over-year became the primary metric by which a news organization’s success was measured, and it crippled the ability of the industry to innovate a response to counter the digital competition that emerged around the turn of the century.

    • I've seen other commentaries on that

      In “the old days” when many newspapers were owned by families, they were supposedly more willing to ride out some lean years without hacking the newsroom to pieces. But once publicly traded companies owned most media outlets, they were under pressure to keep profits high, even during recessions. That let to newsroom cuts, which were rarely reversed during the good times.

Login or Join to comment and post.