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Why Journalists Often Get It Wrong


"[The journalist] ought therefore to consider himself as subject at least to the first law of history, the obligation to tell the truth."

Samuel Johnson,

Of the Duty of a Journalist, 1758

The 18th century literary genius Samuel Johnson won lasting fame for compiling the first historical dictionary of the English language. But for much of his working life, he eked out a living as a journalist in London. He was well versed in the trade's pitfalls. Journalists fall down, he wrote, because we are:

• Prone to mislead, owing to dependence at times on errant and meager news sources who have their own axes to grind.  

• Prey to official and private sources who refuse for various reasons to talk or disclose, making it harder to compile balanced, evenhanded reports.  

• Obliged by deadlines to transmit the earliest intelligence before it matures, which results in fragmented and misguided coverage. We report events and transactions while they are still fluctuating in uncertainty.   

• Inclined to mistake plausibility for accuracy and speed for impact, forgetting that well-judged, well-written dispatches require time and reflection.

Contemporary journalism has its own drawbacks. The 24-hour news cycle has placed renewed, and misguided, emphasis on breaking news and on news reported as it happens. Error, rumor and conjecture mushroom, sewing confusion and compounding it. In Johnson's words, we are inclined to gratify idle curiosity, ours and our audience's.

We journalists are besotted with the craze to get scoops; they advance careers. We ignore the reality that the public does not care who gets the story first. Scoops are journalistic narcissism, the coin of our little realm.  

Our currency should be facts. But that very fact presents problems of its own. The late British historian E.H. Carr observed, "Every journalist knows today that the most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts. It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This, of course, is untrue. The facts speak when the historian [or journalist] calls on them. It is he who decides which facts to give the floor and in what order and context" [emphasis added]. We should acknowledge this fact regularly and publicly. 

Another transgression: We are inclined to indulge the preferences of our editors and producers in pursuit of self-promotion. We know that stories angled to the desires of the boss will be credited with less scrutiny. From experience we learn how to tailor our reports in the hope that our bylines will appear more often on the front page or our faces will appear first at the start of the broadcast hour.  

Journalists also tend to suffer from a peculiar psychological fault. We employ cynicism as a badge of honor, to appear street smart, wised up, cool. Something about the trade — overexposure to the underside of human society and the radical unhappiness of life — invites us to play the cynic to seem more credible. Tacitus identified the trait in his Histories: People listen with ready ears to spite, he said, because "flattery is subject to the shameful charge of servility, but malignity makes a false show of independence."

Correspondingly we are tempted more often than we admit to attribute ulterior motives to politicians and establishment figures of every kind. We wish to be sought after as insiders who know the "real story" behind the scenes. This temptation is risky, Johnson said, because "only actions are visible; motives are secret."

We are apt to get it wrong when we try to divine motives other than the ostensible ones. Infinite are the things to which a leader must attend, counseled the 16th century Italian diplomat and historian Francesco Guicciardini. "It is therefore rash to judge his actions hastily. Very often what you think he has done for one reason he has done for another." The truth is elusive.

How can reporters protect against the downfalls Johnson arraigned? Foremost, we must learn the history of our beats, whether science, politics, art, the environment, et al. Historical knowledge can keep us from breathlessly reporting what has happened countless times before. It bestows a sense of proportion.

History teaches judgment and farsightedness, wrote Harvard historian Paul Gagnon. The journalist's business is the immediate, which fosters nearsightedness. The study of history affords detachment and a capacity for dispassionate judgment.

We journalists should write longer corrections. Frequently (and egregiously) the public is told, "We regret the error." Readers and viewers rarely learn why the error occurred, how it developed and who committed it. This opaqueness is the custom of a trade which self-righteously waves the flag of openness and full disclosure. Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote a catalogue each year of his glaring errors and foolish predictions. It was cathartic for him and refreshing for his readers.

Many a correction could state forthrightly, "We were careless." Johnson said, "It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentionally lying that there is so much falsehood in the world."

We would do well to remember another Johnson insight; people desire to know upon easy terms how the world goes. Most of us prefer truth in small doses. "As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of demand," joked 19th century humorist Josh Billings.

An ancient Roman essayist made a similar point. "Every man prefers belief to the exercise of judgment" — more so in this deformed age of the information glut and a Niagara Falls of factoids and triviality.

The so-called "social media," engines of the banal and the insipid, have reinforced journalism's promiscuous adulation of U.S. (and Western) culture, which is replete with baseness, vulgarity and crudity. We should be pressing the cause to reform it, not indulge it. Sparingly but unswervingly, we ought to return to the practice of telling the public what it needs to know, not what it likes to know and what it likes to avoid.

Today's media (and advertisers) irresponsibly encourage the preference for being entertained instead of informed. The Jon Stewart vogue has supplanted the sober, no-nonsense journalism of Edward R. Murrow, James "Scotty" Reston, Susan Sontag, I.F. Stone and Dorothy Thompson.

We journalists also should remember, humbly, the role we play. "We're a race of spies," confessed French Revolutionary chronicler Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne. "We don't participate or form bonds, yet we describe, classify and sometimes confuse everything. That's why we're a curious lot." 


—– By Paul Mann

Paul Mann was a frequently mistaken White House correspondent and congressional staffer for 26 years in the nation's capital.

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