Friday, October 25, 2013

First time for everything

I surmised that the man standing at our front desk was in his mid-sixties. He was balding, with remnants of white hair neatly combed, one eye swollen shut behind wire-rim glasses. He would explain that he had an infection. He exuded a warmness I hadn’t expected.

That very morning we had published a correction for a story the day before that had reported this man’s criminal sentence was to be four years. It was only four months. Somehow, our reporter had simply gotten it wrong in the original story. I’m accustomed to visits from angry people who have felt wronged by our reporting, even when it was accurate. This man, about whom we had published an obvious inaccuracy, seemed incapable of anger. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and pointed the way to my office.

When we arrived at the little, oddly placed hallway that leads to my office, I stopped – as I always do – and pointed toward my doorway.

“You’re taller than I expected,” he said as he walked on past and into the office. I’ve heard this before. Something about my picture in the newspaper must make me seem short. His remark appeared designed to relieve me of my anxiety.

He took a seat in my office and I sat behind my desk. I expected a tongue-lashing that never came.

“We were just talking about you,” I said, which was true. When Bonnie came to my office door to say who was asking to see me, I had been talking to the reporter who made the error. The reporter smiled awkwardly when he heard the name and headed back toward the newsroom.

Only 15 minutes before, an attorney I’ve known for nearly a quarter-century had called while on a business trip to say we’d made an error in our story the day before. I told him that we had already printed a correction. He was grateful and went on to say that the case was complicated and the man we’d wrongly sentenced to four years was a good man.

I’ve heard this before, of course. I don’t get calls from friends of people convicted of a crime who say the criminal is really far worse than we could imagine.

After the man spoke for a moment, I stopped him and apologized for our error.

“Apology accepted,” he said. I think he meant it. He then went on to talk in very general terms about the complex insurance-related financial crime to which he’d pleaded guilty, without anger or irony. He said he’d broken a law and would spend four months in prison for it. He said that no one had lost any money. We are hearing that this may be true.

His request was simple. Investigate the story further. Learn the details. I’ll talk to your reporter, he said. So will my attorney. I promised him we would, explaining that we had already arrived at that decision less than an hour earlier. The expected accusations of our sloppiness never came. He said he was a faithful reader of our paper. He didn’t mean it in the past tense. He didn’t stay long. We both stood and I walked around my desk and shook his hand again. He conducted himself with a kind of somber dignity.

He said something about how nice it must be to be tall and handsome with a full head of hair, again seeming sincere. I certainly have plenty of hair, but handsome isn't commonly attributed to me. Not having a ready a response, I said something about my nearly 80-year-old father having a full head of mostly black hair. He inquired about the origins of my last name, suggesting it might be Lithuanian. I told him that we were of eastern European descent, and he nodded. I walked him to our front door and he left.

The day before, our managing editor had received a couple of calls from friends of this man who weren’t so polite. They called him some pretty awful names. The man himself spoke gently but with conviction, tinged with melancholy. He said his grandson had peed himself when federal agents raided their business office, guns drawn.

If his was an act, it was natural genius. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m pretty good at spotting phonies. He was no phony. He had screwed up, but the consensus we’re hearing is that he probably would have been acquitted had he not pleaded guilty. We wrote a story about him that was wrong – a simple, sloppy error. In the larger scheme, that mistake won’t really make much of a difference. But I now fully understand why this man has so many loyal, passionate defenders. It was a nice moment in a business bathed in cynicism and unpleasantness. I wished we had done better.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Real journalists, please stand up

There’s a curious debate going on in various places about who can claim to be called a journalist.

Journalism isn’t like medicine or accounting – there are no tests to pass or formal credentials to earn. But that doesn’t mean there’s any mystery to who is a journalist and who isn’t.

It doesn’t necessarily have to do with where the person works, or whether she’s a blogger or he’s a network anchor. It comes down to four simple principles:

  1. Seek truth and report it.
  2. Minimize harm.
  3. Act independently.
  4. Be accountable.
These basic principles of journalism can be found on the Society of Professional Journalist’s web site. An expanded version can be found on the Post Register’s web site.

It’s pretty straightforward – people who have been properly trained and are committed to these four principles can be called journalists. Others cannot. It’s not really all that complicated.

This has become a pertinent issue lately because the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate is trying to create its own definition as it contemplates a federal shield law that would protect journalists who don’t want to be forced to divulge anonymous sources (which is another topic for another day).

The First Amendment makes it unconstitutional to formally enforce these or any other journalistic guidelines, but there should be no prohibition against using them to help determine whether someone claiming to be a journalist deserves the protection of a shield law. Beyond that, in the more generic debate over what journalism is, these principles are the starting point.

Because journalism can now be practiced using an increasing multitude of platforms, from old-fashioned print and broadcast to smart phones and blogs, some people seem to be having a hard time distinguishing journalism from blathering. As I’ve written in this space before, there’s no need for such confusion.

Perhaps it’s most helpful to identify who isn’t a journalist.

For example, if:

  • You collect content from around the Internet and post it on your site, you’re not necessarily a journalist.
  • You simply write your opinion on an issue without fact-checking, you’re not a journalist.
  • You point your smart phone at a traffic accident and get video, you’re not a journalist.
To be as helpful as possible, here’s a partial list of content sources not run under basic journalistic standards: Reddit, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Drudge Report, WorldNetDaily, The Daily Show, MSNBC, Fox News, The Colbert Report … oh, I could go on and on. These, and other sources like them, may be entertaining or even informative. They may even experience the occasional journalistic spasm.

But they don’t reliably or consistently do journalism, so reader and viewer beware.