“Get it first, get it fast – but first get it right” was once an essential ethical standard in every responsible newsroom in every country in the world where the cherished privileged freedom of the press was held as sacred trust.
It is, alas, a standard no longer held dear in a world swamped by the over-the-backyard-fence unsubstantiated gossip on that cursed blessing called the Internet. Freedom of speech is still spouted as a precious freedom, but “getting it right” is no longer a matter of ethical concern, even in newsrooms where it was once a rule of law.
It’s 50 years or more since Bob Considine, (1906-1975), once one of the great newspaper columnists of North America, wrote A Newspaperman’s Prayer. ” There is a piece I have quoted often during my half-century in the trenches of journalism and I do so again here in the hope that his words may flicker a spark of interest in today’s professional messengers, reporters and editors – and those who think freedom of speech gives them the right to accuse without just cause.
“Dear God, may I be fair. Circumstances and dumb luck have placed in my thumby paws a degree or authority which I may not fully comprehend. Let me not profane it. Give me the drive that will make me check and countercheck the facts. Guide me when, lost for want of a rudder or a lead (for my story) I stumble through a jungle of speculation……Such news as I find or comes my way, let me tell it quickly, and simply with an eye to my responsibilities. For news is precious. Few could live without it. When it is stopped or thwarted or twisted, something goes out of the hearts of (those) it might have nourished…”
These few lines from Considine came back to me a few evenings ago when I flicked my TV to the CBC news and was shocked to hear that once esteemed news agency informing Canadians on the latest scandals related to USA President-elect Donald Trump. The thrust of the unfolding scandal was in the announcer’s mantra style repeated warning that what the CBC was reporting “is not verified.” I lost count how many times the CBC warned viewers that what they were being force-fed was not supported by fact, that the CBC didn’t really know the original author of the report, just that it had been made public by an Internet outlet and was reported to originate with Russian intelligence sources who had been building a dossier on Trump with a view to blackmailing him.
And over and over there was this reminder that while there were no facts to substantiate the allegations, the venerable CBC felt it had a duty to give them widespread publicity.
Last Friday (Jan.13) the Globe and Mail reported on former British spy Christopher Steele, now rumoured to be the man who compiled the report for western distribution. While reviewing Steele’s career in some detail and offering titillating morsels on how the report got to where it is, the Globe’s London correspondent Paul Waldie wrote: “None of the allegations in the report have been verified and many have been contradicted. Security analysts, too, are skeptical of the information saying the work appears shoddy.”
Other news agencies are possibly guilty of the same betrayal of the basic rules of good reporting, but CBC and the Globe and Mail are the only two to come to my attention. These are two major actors in the news dissemination field who, after a few days earlier lamenting the number of false stories roaming the world in the guise of truth, broke the basic rule to be sure you’ve got it right.
As the late Jack Scott, one the Vancouver Sun’s brighter stars, used to teach young would-be reporters who found themselves stumbling through a jungle of speculation: “When in doubt, leave it out.” Even if it means, in this instance, protecting an ill-mannered, blustering, bully who has been known to lie when savaging opponents and who will soon be President of the Divided States. He will change radically in the next few months or he will eventually be “hoist on his own petard” without the aid of “unverified reports” broadcast by people who should know better.