Len Downie’s Rules for Good Journalism

November 14th, 2008; 10:06 pm by Ryan Thornburg

The former executive editor of The Washington Post laid them out recently in a speech at Harvard:

1. All journalists should accurately identify themselves.

2. Conflicts of interest should also be disclosed, if not avoided altogether.

3. News and opinion should be clearly differentiated.

4. Photography and video should not be doctored or misleadingly used, unless it is obvious it has been altered only to entertain or express opinion.

5. Journalism should serve the public interest rather than the personal whim of bloggers or special interests of any kind.

Finally, he says, “Too much concentration on the philosophical questions about journalism in the digital world runs the risk of ignoring the most important question before us. Who will pay for the news?”

Those seem pretty straightforward and not too onerous. I have a quibble with his third and fifth points because I’m not sure these can be accomplished in a way that convinces and builds trust with the audience, even when done by the most well-intentioned journalists. Some people know the difference between opinion and fact, and for them labels are meaningless. Other people don’t know the difference between opinion and fact even when it’s labeled, and for them labels are also meaningless. “The public interest” I think is also a bit elusive and is phrase that has been so widely used by policy advocates on all sides that I’m not sure it has much ability to build or sustain credibility. Instead, I’d replace those two points with one — that journalism should be “evidence-based” and respect the scientific method.

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