Lost along the way
In 1981 - pre-internet, pre-laptop, pre-WiFi, pre-Brittany, pre-Jason Blair, pre-Rather, pre-Newsweek - John L. Hulteng, a Stanford professor of communications, published a small paperback called Playing It Straight.
Hulteng, who died in 1996, was an imposing figure in journalism education. He was a newspaperman for 10 years in the Midwest and on the East Coast as editorial page editor of The Providence Journal and Bulletin. He taught at the University of Oregon for 22 years, then at Stanford for nine. Playing It Straight was commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors as an ethics handbook. I've had my copy for 30 years, and I've consulted it often. And often I didn't like what I found in it. Too cumbersome, I thought. Too straight-laced.
For instance, regarding confidentiality of newspaper sources, Hulteng wrote, "But such pledges of confidentiality must be entered into only when there is no other way for they put both the reporter and the paper at risk. Moreover, every attempt should be made to win agreement from confidential sources before publication that if the courts should order the journalist to name the source, the source will step forward and testify." Hulteng's view, authoritative as it may have been 25 years ago, is not the view common among journalists today.
In the 2005 First Amendment survey, conducted this spring by the First Amendment Center and the American Journalism Review (AJR), Americans endorsed the role of the press as a government watchdog. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed agreed that, "It is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government." But the performance of the press and some of its practices, including especially the use of anonymous sources, attracted far less support, and in part that's because Hulteng's formulation of the rules for using anonymous sources is no longer in vogue.
According to a statement written by Rachel Smolkin and published by American Journalism Review, highlighting findings in the 2005 First Amendment Survey, "public support for allowing journalists to protect unnamed sources has steadily declined, dropping 16 percentage points since the question was first posed in 1997."
"It would appear the public sees some justification for having this technique in the reporter's tool kit," Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, tells Smolkin. But use of unnamed sources does adversely impact a story's credibility: "I interpret it as [the public] saying that it should be a tool, but it shouldn't be overused."
Geneva Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington bureau and a former Washington Post ombudsman, tells Smolkin that, "In order to protect this central tool, we've got to be more careful about using it. We've got to be more transparent about why we're using it."
On a broader front, the news is worse. Hulteng wrote that, "Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to fact as news stories."
But, according to AJR, "an unnerving 65 percent of those polled agreed with the statement: 'The falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem.' And a mere 33 percent agreed that: 'Overall, the news media tries to report the news without bias.' That's down six percentage points from last year. Among the 64 percent of Americans who disagreed with that statement, 42 percent strongly disagreed.
"The public is hearing that everything is biased; it's either one side or the other; there's no such thing as straight journalism," Duke University professor Susan Tifft told AJR.
And Policinski says the "American public still has faith in the concept of the free press; they may just have problems with parts of the press as they perceive it today. Efforts to be more vigilant about the accuracy of stories, to prosecute, if you will, incidents of plagiarism and falsification and the increasing attempt to greatly reduce or eliminate the use of confidential sources are all efforts that will pay off in the long run in the public's perception of the media, as painful as they are to go through in the immediate moment."
What Hulteng recognized and what may have fallen along the roadside in the rush to connectedness, 24-hour news, the blogosphere, and the media conglomerates is that the privilege extended by the Founders to journalists came with obligations. "If it is true," Hulteng wrote, "that a free press is indispensable to the public because it provides a catalyst for the functioning of a representative system of government, it is equally true that the respect and confidence of the public are essential to the continued survival of a free press. The interdependence is organic."