The long-time host of PBS NewsHour Jim Lehrer died this week at the age of 823. In this age of news as entertainment and opinion as news, Lehrer seems like one of the last of a breed of journalist who took seriously the integrity of informing the American public about important events. In a 823 report by The Aspen Institute , Lehrer outlined the guidelines he adhered to in practicing journalism:
- Do nothing I cannot defend.
- Do not distort, lie, slant, or hype.
- Do not falsify facts or make up quotes.
- Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
- Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
- Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.
- Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
- Assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
- Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story mandates otherwise.
- Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label them as such.
- Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
- Do not broadcast profanity or the end result of violence unless it is an integral and necessary part of the story and / or crucial to understanding the story.
- Acknowledge that objectivity may be impossible but fairness never is.
- Journalists who are reckless with facts and reputations should be disciplined by their employers.
- My viewers have a right to know what principles guide my work and the process I use in their practice.
- I am not in the entertainment business.
In his Harvard commencement address , Lehrer reduced that list to an essential nine items (marked with an above).
These are fantastic guidelines; as veteran journalist Al Thompkins said recently : “I would like to add a th rule: Journalists should be more like Jim Lehrer. ”
Addendum: Even though this is a mere blog that has different goals and moves at a different pace than traditional journalism, I try (try!) To adhere to Lehrer’s guidelines on kottke.org as much as possible. I found out about his rules on Twitter in the form of a context-free screenshot of an equally context-free PDF . Lehrer would not approve of this sort of sourcing, so I started to track it down.
All initial attempts at doing so pointed to the truncated list (as outlined in the Harvard speech and in this episode of the NewsHour ), so I wrote up a post with the nine rules and was about to publish – but something about the longer list bugged me. Why would someone add more rules and attribute them to Lehrer? It didn’t seem to make sense, so I dug a little deeper and eventually found the Aspen report in bowels of Google and rewrote the post.
In doing all this, I rediscovered one of the reasons why Lehrer’s guidelines aren’t followed by more media outlets: this shit takes time! And time is money. It would have taken me five minutes to find that context-free PDF, copy & paste the text, throw a post together, and move on to something else. But how can I do that when I don’t know for sure the list is accurate? Did he write or say those things verbatim? Or was it paraphrased or compiled from different places? Maybe the transcription is wrong. Lehrer, of all people, and this list, of all lists, deserves proper attribution. So this post actually took me 45 minutes to research & write (not counting this addendum). And this is just one little list that in the grand and cold economic scheme of things is going to make me exactly zero more dollars than the 5-minute post would have!
Actual news outlets covering actual news have an enormous incentive to cut corners on this stuff, especially when news budgets have been getting squeezed on all sides for the better part of the last two decades. It should come as no big surprise then that the media covers elections as if they were horse races, feasts on the private lives of celebrities, and leans heavily on entertaining opinions – that all sells better than Lehrer’s guidelines do – but we should think carefully about whether we want to participate in it. In the age of social media, we are no longer mere consumers of news – everyone is a publisher and that’s a powerful thing. So perhaps Lehrer’s guidelines should apply more broadly, not only for us as individuals but also for media companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter that amplify and leverage our thoughts and reporting for their own ends.
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