Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Update on Journalistic Practices

Just a quick update to this post to answer a few emailed questions:

Back in journalism school, it was drummed into us that you never, never, never try to give the reader the impression that you interviewed someone when you hadn't. I remember getting reamed out for quoting a researcher on elephant seals both from his interview with me and also from his published work and not being clear enough distinguishing the two. (By the way, this reaming was done by an excellent journalist and teacher, Jerry Lanson, then the city editor of the San Jose Mercury News, now the head of the journalism department at Emerson College. Jerry helped to convince me that I wasn't going to be a good journalist; I'll be forever grateful for that).

It's not necessary to go into detail on sources (as it would be in an academic paper), but you need to give your reader a clue: "in a web-published essay" or "in a recently published essay," or "X also wrote that." More importantly, you simply aren't supposed to pass off other people's work as your own.

I have a lot of criticism for my journalism education, and in retrospect it was a waste of a year except that I got to hang out at Stanford, where I met my wife (so going to Stanford was actually the second-best decision I ever made). But for all the attempted political indoctrination and the pervasive unconscious biases in the program, there was a deep committment to journalistic integrity. While my professors all argued that one can't be objective and one shouldn't even try, etc., they never would have stood for the kinds of manipulations and dishonest work on display in so many places. Whether this behavior -- from Jason Blair, to Dowdification, down to recycled quotes -- is the fruit of any specific policies that were adopted during that time period, I can't really tell. But journalism as a whole needs to do a much better job of policing itself and punishing those who violate the canons. I'd like to see journalism schools and editors really emphasize the basics of getting facts straight. But if my experience as a teacher is any guide, the students who are currently going into journalism just want to write opinion any way they can (too be fair, we did too, back in 1990-91, but our teachers and editors seemed to be somewhat better at forcing us to focus on the facts).

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