Dad was Right … Again

I think I was in middle school when my dad dropped the following profound bomb on me.

“Not everything you read in the paper is true,” he said.

What in the world? (I had not yet developed the coarser vocabulary of a journalist.)

I was not convinced. It’s a newspaper. It’s news. It’s supposed to be true. News is the truth. If it happened, it’s in the newspaper, and it happened the way the newspaper said it happened. Why would Dad even think that?

This is just one of a flood of memories I have of Dad that I’ve been pondering recently. He passed away last month after a difficult struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. That’s a topic that I won’t get into here, but I bring it up because I just read something that triggered this specific memory.

Poynter reported last week that a recent Gallup poll showed only 24% of those surveyed gave journalists a “high” or “very high” rating for honesty and ethics.

That hits close to home. As someone who has devoted my entire professional and academic life to journalism, and as someone who has very strong opinions about how journalists should conduct themselves, both professionally and personally, I hate to be confronted with this reality. The public just doesn’t really trust us.

My own father was sometimes the target of shoddy journalism. As a public school official, he was in the news quite often. Sometimes the local newspaper would allow controversial — even untrue — statements to be published and wouldn’t even contact my dad and ask for his point of view. Dad expected as much as a public figure, but Mom couldn’t stand it.

I remember being at the table one day ranting about getting a newspaper with no B section. “What kind of crappy newspaper gets delivered to the house and the entire B section isn’t in it?!? This is ridiculous!”

But Mom had intercepted the newspaper before I got to it. She told me years later — seriously, years — that she had taken the B section out of the paper that morning because it contained an unflattering story about Dad, and she didn’t want us kids to read it.

And this brings me back to the present. Dad was right … again. A newspaper doesn’t always contain the truth. Sometimes there are nuances to stories that get overlooked. The report might be essentially true, but it’s not the whole truth. Sometimes journalists make mistakes. I’ve done that, too, and there’s no getting around it. We all screw up on occasion.

And then there are those who deliberately lie, make up facts, or steal other people’s work. These acts are clear violations of widely accepted ethical standards (see SPJ’s Code of Ethics as a great example). Unfortunately, the high profile cases get a lot of attention. But the ones that happen on the local level, even if only a small number of people know about them, are just as damaging. The public is unwilling to see past the proverbial bad apples. As far as they’re concerned, most of us are finks.

Journalism is service to the community. It is a promise to the public. Journalists are servants, whether our community is on the local, national or international level, and we are supposed to be purveyors of the truth.

I hold that sacred, and I despise those who don’t respect that relationship. Even a few are a few too many, as evidenced by our low trust ratings. I’m happy to encourage them to find another line of work.

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