5.28.2009

Journalism basics (yes, they matter whether you print on paper or pixels)

I’ve been meaning for some months to write a post on a few basics of journalism that beat bloggers should know and which they ignore at their peril.

It’s easy to poke fun at older, mainstream journalists who, it may be thought, don’t understand the new online, digital world. But, those folks do know a few things, simple, practical tips that will make you a better journalist and might keep you from getting sued in the process.

Since I never seem to have time to write up the entire list as one post, I’ll be doing these one at a time, beginning with:

FIRST: DO NO HARM

Hippocrates is credited with coining that statement in the 4th century B.C. He meant it for physicians but it’s equally appropriate for journalists.

When you’re out doing your journalistic thing, try not to do harm. By which I mean hurting innocent people or publishing something that causes innocent people to be hurt or bungling your reporting so that the bad guys not only get away with whatever bad stuff they’re doing but actually gain public sympathy in the process and then go on to do more bad stuff.

In other words: Don’t leave the situation worse than you found it. Be aware that what you publish has repercussions. Make sure that what you’re publishing is not only accurate but is germane and important to the story. Just because you find out something about a person doesn’t mean that you have to publish that information. Is it relevant to the story or merely titillating? Will it cause harm to a person physically or unfairly or unnecessarily harm their reputation? Does the story require that this information be made public? If not, then don't publish it.

Don’t hide behind the excuse of “I was just telling people what I learned.” Sometimes, we uncover information that we don’t publish, much as we might like to, because it simply isn’t relevant to the story. It's tempting to show off how smart we are by publishing everything we find out. Don't give in to that temptation.

That doesn’t mean you cover up or suppress unpleasant information, but it does mean that what you do publish should be important enough to be publicly exposed.

2 comments:

paulbalcerak said...

Always good to put the basics in print (er, pixel). Looking forward to watching you reteach the basics.

Gonzogrrl said...

That's a great first post. While accuracy is the foundation for producing good journalism, do no harm is like the front door. Once you've been let in to a story or a source's life, only you can make the ethical decisions necessary to protect the innocent. That's what builds integrity, reputation and trustworthiness--opening that door again, and from my experience, many more.

I look forward to the rest of your basics.