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    What Is Journalism?

    It occurred to me that the readers of Good News, Etc. might be interested in some remarks I made a few weeks ago to students at Kino University in Hermosillo, Mexico. They were, of course, interpreted into Spanish:

    Journalism is an honorable profession, but journalistic reporting at the end of the millennium is undergoing changes that reflect the computer age. These changes also reflect a dangerous trend in humanity’s search for truth.

    At stake, in fact, is truth itself. The honest reporter has a mandate to represent happenings in our culture as they occur, dealing with facts without seeking to interpret them. It is the reader’s prerogative to do the interpreting. The columnist can help him or her, but not the reporter.

    The old formula of who, what, when, where, how and why is, of course, basic to the news media and always will be. But today, we are being offered both “adversary journalism” and “advocacy journalism” which result in the news taking sides before we even know what it is.

    Soviet Communism practiced this kind of journalism and the result was that no one believed anything it reported. The Soviet press was dismissed as pure propaganda, which it was. Today, without any world-conquering motives, advocacy and adversary journalists are beginning to twist the daily events to their own ends or their publisher’s ends.

    That forces us to ask candidly what journalism is. By its inherent nature, it is the reporting of the truth. Something “happened,” and the journalist is to find out when, where, etc. He is not to report “what it means’ or “what it may mean” or “what didn’t happen.”

    One of the side effects of this new kind of reporting is that it tends to be careless. The information is often incorrect and is not checked before printing. Another even more dangerous bias is that the reporter may try to interpret the news to his or her advantage. By making it sound more important than it is, the journalist subtly seeks to increase his own importance.

    There is nothing wrong with a reporter being loyal to the publisher and publication that employs him. The danger comes when loyalty interferes with the presentation of truth. The moment truth is tampered with, lying takes over and the public is deceived. Then, when the public is aware of the deception, the journalist’s function vanishes. He is no longer a conveyer of truth, for he has lost the public trust.

    Here are some simple tests of good journalism that can be applied to anything the journalist writes:

    1. Clarity. Ernst Kirschten of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch once wrote, “Write not that you may be understood. Write so that you may not be misunderstood.” Obtuse writing is unacceptable in a journalistic report.
    2. Restraint. The story should be brief rather than lengthy. Proverbs 17 reads, “He who restrains his words has knowledge.”
    3. Terseness. A journalistic report should be concise. People who read newspaper accounts are busy people and the abrupt expression is preferred to languorous prose that has no bite.
    4. Objectivity. The honest journalist is not trying to make a case but to “tell it the way it is.” As a professional, he or she does not take sides. He is out to prove nothing.
    5. Accuracy. The ultimate test of journalism is its conformity to the truth. Accuracy requires checking statements, research, documenting references and correctly quoting authorities. To say simply, “sources report” is nothing but gossip.
    6. Color. To write colorfully is not to write inaccurately but simply to write more attractively and therefore more readably. The important thing is to stay with the facts.
    7. Fairness. Whether a journalist is fair is really a test of character rather than of writing. The writer must use his own judgment as to how to write fairly to all sides.
    8. Balance. A balanced article pays attention to opposite views and gives each fair representation. The journalist leaves it to the reader to judge which view is correct.

    If these principles are learned and practiced by today’s media informants, there need be no fear that the reading public will be misinformed and swayed into dangerous political or other decisions by so-called advocacy or adversary journalism.


    Sherwood Wirt of Poway is editor emeritus of Decision magazine and the author of numerous books. The Poway resident is founder of the Christian Writers’ Guild.

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