Tuesday, July 1, 2003

The credibility crisis: Does Freedom have one

Freedom Family
July, 2003
Integrity — it’s a Freedom core value. As a journalist, there’s no way around seeking and reporting the truth. The reputation of any newspaper and newscast for accurate and truthful reporting is what readers and viewers bank on. Credibility is paramount.

“Plagiarism” is a nasty word in journalism. And, after the much-publicized plagiarism scandal at The New York Times earlier this year, Freedom editors wasted no time in scrutinizing their own ethical standards in gathering and reporting community news.

Here’s a look at how Freedom associates work to understand and comply with the high standards of journalistic integrity delivered in any Freedom publication.

Freedom news associates quickly learn that the consequences are dire for fabricating or plagiarizing a story. There are no excuses – or exceptions.

Preventing a credibility crisis is what Editor Lee Barnes of the Times-News in Burlington, N.C.,constantly works toward by ensuring that his reporters know newsroom rights and wrongs.

Barnes has been an editor for two years. “It is dangerous to assume that new employees know about newsroom rights and wrongs,” insists Barnes.  “One rookie reporter regarded requests for corrections as nothing more than crank calls. She left the paper shortly thereafter.

Another used an unnamed source in a story, and when I demanded to know the name of the source, he said that he was the source he was quoting. He saw nothing wrong with quoting himself. He did not last long in
our newsroom.”

One strike and you’re out

For Barnes, the rights and wrongs of the newsroom are simple. When it comes to plagiarism, there are no exceptions at the Times-News.

“We have a few absolutes here,” explains Barnes. “Plagiarism is a one strike, you’re out offense.”

Other absolutes are clear-cut. For example, reporters cannot use unnamed sources in a story without the permission of the editor, and only in special circumstances to protect the confidentiality of a source.

Adds Barnes, “And nothing is more important than an immediate followup on requests for a correction or complaint.”

The Credibility Project

Editor Jim Ripley’s stance on the issue of credibility is clearly etched in the minds of his East Valley Tribune news room staff. He created a set of newsroom principles focused on accuracy and truthfinding.

“Our goal was to determine how much national and international news in times such as these was appropriate to maintain the credibility of a locally focused newspaper,”says Ripley.

The staff also held roundtables with three groups of readers in conjunction with the Associated Press Managing Editor’s Credibility Project.

Here, readers informed the newspaper staff how much they relied on the Tribune for accuracy and the full story.

“The intensity of their feelings about accuracy surprised me,” says Ripley.

“It wasn’t about being first. It wasn’t about quantity or providing depth or analysis.  Our newspaper’s credibility rested on the Tribune being accurate.”

After collaborating with readers and ensuring the Tribune staff was on the same page with the newsroom
principles, Ripley published a Reader’s Rights list which outlined exactly that a reader could expect from the newspaper. The list included promises ranging from the accurate and swift correction of errors to a dedication to pursue the truth impartially and tenaciously.

“We were convinced that our principles would make the Tribune a more reader-focused newspaper,”
said Ripley.

Similarly, The Orange County Register takes accuracy and credibility very seriously. The Register
newsroom staged a series of brown-bag lunches for associates to discuss ethical issues confronting
news-gathering personnel.

The Register also publishes a daily “Customer Bill of Rights,” which assures readers the paper is “dedicated to serving its community as an independent source of news and information, with the highest standards of accuracy, credibility and integrity.”

“Register journalists gathered for three brown bag sessions during July and August to discuss ethical issues ranging from accepting meals and gifts to whether we should read back portions of stories to sources,” said Chris Meyer, a deputy editor at the Register. “Spirited debates at the well-attended meetings revealed a variety of practices and opinions.

The Content Center

Steering Committee is now working to convert these discussions into specific policies and guidelines.”

Source feedback

At The Daily Press in Victorville, Calif., Editor Don Holland’s immediate response to The New York
Times credibility scandal was to reissue the newsroom’s ethics policy, which is based on the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

“We constantly work to revisit our journalistic code of ethics and make sure we have associate compliance at all times.”said Holland.

Holland also started distributing questionnaires to sources quoted in the paper, to solicit feedback regarding the accuracy, fairness, completeness and balance of the story and headline.  Says Holland, “The feedback has been mostly positive, but in a few cases has brought to our attention issues to be addressed.”

Checking it twice

Stopping to check and double-check for accuracy is a prerequisite in Editor Jim Krumel’s newsroom at The Lima News in Lima, Ohio. “I insist on newsroom customer service checks,” says Krumel. “Each week, an article is subjected to a rigorous checking procedure.

Sources are personally contacted and facts are verified.” Why the rigorous check for source accuracy? Answers Krumel, “This procedure sends a very strong message to the sources and reporters that
The Lima News is absolutely dedicated to journalistic integrity.”

Community commitment

At The Destin Log, Editor Jim Wagner manages a small news staff located in a small town. “We live in the same neighborhoods, shop in the same stores and eat out in the same restaurants as many of our sources,”  he says. “If we were screwing up their quotes and writing half-truths, the community would let us know.”

Wagner also runs a work environment where associates answer their own phones, read their own e-mails, and anyone can walk in off the street and sit down with the editor, publisher or any reporter at any time.

Says Wagner, “While we don’t have the technology, and often our reporters don’t have the years in the business that the ‘big boys’ do, we have an honesty that I think is evident in our news reporting and on the editorial page.”

Television standards are high

In the television world, credibility issues are equally important, but they pose different challenges than in
the newspaper world. “At a TV station, every effort is made to isolate the news department decision-
making process from the other interests of the station,” explains Kingsley Kelley, vice president and general manager of WLNE in Providence, R.I., “much as the newsroom at a newspaper is separate from the advertising and publisher’s office.”

But it is much more difficult for someone in TV to “create” a person or event explains Steve Hunsicker,
news director for WTVC in Chattanooga, Tenn. Out in the field, they work in two man crews — unlike many newspaper reporters, who often work independently on a story before submitting it to their editor.

“We videotape all our interviews, so it’s pretty easy to tell if someone said something or if it was taken out of context,” says Hunsicker. “Likewise, it would be pretty hard to invent a person and then videotape them.”

In addition, WTVC has a policy not to air interviews with someone’s face blacked out or disguised in any way. A strong attribution policy is also imperative to the journalistic integrity of newscasting.  “We attribute everything. We do not ‘steal’ stories from anyone unless we attribute it,”  says Hunsicker.

Recently, a Nashville newspaper ran a story that the president of the University of Tennessee had charged thousands of dollars of personal expenses to his university credit card. Even though the story was on the AP wire, WTVC ran the story, giving full credit to The Nashville Tennessean. With such a short time period before the newscast aired, there was no way for WTVC newsroom staff to independently verify the story, but they felt it was important enough to run.

There is no time to pre-edit each word during breaking news situations, so WLNE’s Kelley ensures that a lot of time and effort is spent coaching reporters and anchors in advance, preparing them for these times.

“And then finally,”says Kelley, “even when things are happening as we report them, news management is  monitoring and correcting (if necessary) as we go!”

The end result Freedom’s company culture rooted in the five Freedom Values, set forth by founder R. C. Hoiles, helps keep journalistic integrity in check.

“When interviewing a job candidate, I make a point to touch on Freedom’s Values and our corporate philosophy,” says Don Holland. “It's important that candidates understand where we’re coming from so
they can decide if we are a good fit.”

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