Friday, April 07, 2006

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Statement of Shared Purpose

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has issued a statement outlining nine core journalistic principles. A contentious group by nature, most journalists would have no difficulty in agreeing that the stated principles are central to the practice of journalism.

Styled “shared purposes” in the statement, the principles are: 1) Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth; 2) its first loyalty is to citizens; 3) its essence is a discipline of verification; 4) its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover; 5) it must serve as an independent monitor of power; 6) it must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise; 7) it must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant; 8) it must keep the news comprehensive and proportional; 9) its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

On journalism’s first obligation, the statement notes that “Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context.” Journalism pursues truth in a "practical" rather than philosophical or absolute sense, a discipline that relies upon the accurate assembling of verifiable facts. The meanings conveyed in the resulting story -- which may involve multiple reports -- are “valid for now” but subject to further investigation. “Journalists,” the statement continues, “should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information… The truth overt time emerges from this forum.”

In principle 3, the statement further comments upon the “discipline of verification." Objectivity does not mean that journalists are free of biases. The journalistic method is objective, “not the journalist.” Journalism relies upon “a consistent method of testing information--a transparent approach to evidence--precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy” of the journalist’s work. “Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards.”

Principles 2, 4, and 5 are all closely related. Journalists cannot retain an “(2) allegiance to citizens and the larger public interest above any other” nor can they “(5) serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens” if they do not maintain “(4) an independence from those they cover.” This independence requires a willingness to follow the facts were they lead, most especially when they lead us away from our most deeply held biases.

On principle 4, the statement reads, “Independence of spirit and mind, rather than neutrality, is the principle journalists must keep in focus. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform--not their devotion to a certain group or outcome.” More than nations, journalists must be wary of “entangling alliances.” Objectivity is sacrificed more often for those with whom we agree in most essentials. The facts, not desired outcomes, should determine the shape and substance of the story.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism also is critical of the trade: “This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment. But the need for professional method is not always fully recognized or refined. While journalism has developed various techniques for determining facts, for instance, it has done less to develop a system for testing the reliability of journalistic interpretation.”

Indeed, correct interpretation occasionally depends upon facts not yet in evidence. News reports evolve; which is to say, new facts are introduced into the stream of information as the story unfolds. A conscientious review of the finished story by editors would reveal weak journalistic interpretation as the story progresses. But newspapers are a business, and editors often lack the time and resources for such reviews. In areas dominated by one newspaper or one political philosophy such reviews are unlikely. In newspapers dominated by one political ideology, such reviews are even less likey.

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