I have made my living as a writer in one form or another for the past 35 years and I have watched the world of journalism change. My stepson is starting to think ahead to college and he is a terrific writer, and he is considering journalism as a profession, but with the demise of so many newspapers and print publications, I have to wonder what the future looks like for professional journalists. Surely trained media observers will still have a place in the Web-driven world, but how they will make a living at is becoming an open question.
However, there is still a real need for good journalistic practices, whether you are writing as a professional journalist or as a blogger who wants to build journalistic Web cred. If you are going to do the work of a journalist, you have to follow the rules of good journalism. I recently spotted a Huffington Post entry outlining Citizen Journalism Publishing Standards, which outlines the basics and are always good to keep in mind if you plan to offer objective reporting:
- Present the facts: Offer what you have directly observed or verified, and don’t invent details or speculate. This means being stingy with the use of superlatives and adjectives. If you are writing fact and not fiction, you need to be meticulous about getting the facts right. This includes accurate quotes from interviews; don’t clean up the grammar or add words, and never paraphrase and call it a quote.
- Avoid hearsay: Never trust a single source, no matter how trustworthy, but check your facts. Verify any claim before reporting it, and if you can’t verify the claim, attribute it – “According to ….” Also keep it relevant and don’t embellish with negative or irrelevant comments (“He was foolish to…”). And if someone reports something negative about another person, verify the facts, especially if it the statement implies illegality.
- Omit your opinion: If you are reporting as a journalist, stick to the facts and leave your personal views out of the story. If you feel you need to expose an injustice, let the truth of the story do it for you.
- Avoid plagiarism: Always attribute material you are citing (which is incredibly easy to do with Web links) and attribute your sources, whether print, broadcast, online, or from other outlets.
- Always identify yourself: Make sure the other parties you interview know who you are and what you are writing about. Before quoting them, make sure they know where you plan to use the information. It’s important to respect your sources.
- Identify your sources: Make it clear that your sources’ comments are “on the record” and the can expect to be quoted. If you are working on a sensitive story and the sources want to remain anonymous, you need to verify that arrangement in advance. There are some rules about the use of “off the record,” which basically means the comments are for information only and not to be attributed or quoted. Similarly, “on background” means you are looking for information to paraphrase but that won’t be attributed or quoted. Even professional journalists get tripped up by what’s on and off the record, so if you can, make sure everything is on the record from the outset. (I always advise my clients that there is no such thing as “off the record.”)
- Fact checking: Never take anyone’s word for the truth. Verify information from other sources and use trusted news sources and documents as well as interviews. That way you can eliminate errors and exaggeration and write a truthful and balanced story.
- Integrity of photographs: Just as news stories should be factual and demand integrity, so should photos. Never alter a photo so it could mislead or deceive a reader.
- Spelling and grammar: Be sure to proofread your content and check for both spelling and grammatical errors. Be especially careful of proper names and look for missing words. I also suggest you invest in an Associated Press Stylebook and conform to their style for things such as datelines, quotes, capitalization, and punctuation.
If you are going to be taken seriously as a journalist, you have to follow the rules of the profession. That’s why the White House has been questioning Fox News’s rights as a news organization. They frequently fail to maintain the rules of fair reporting and objectivity, and continually blur the lines between reporting and editorializing. They broke the rules of good journalism, and it has undermined their credibility. If you want to practice journalism and be taken seriously, you have to follow the rules.