Monday, July 26, 2010

July 26: Still Needed: Accuracy, Honesty and Accountability

By Sylvia Gurinsky

One of the longstanding rules of good journalism still applies: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

So do the rules of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics: No distorted news content. Journalists should admit and correct mistakes immediately, hold others accountable when they don't and live up to the standards demanded of others.

That's more important than ever when those who break the news don't necessarily work as traditional journalists.

During the past week, two entities that fall into the nontraditional category have made their own news - in different ways.

The first was conservative pundit Andrew Breitbart, who evidently did not follow the SPJ Code of Ethics provision concerning distortion when he posted video that took comments by Shirley Sherrod, Georgia director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, out of context. A lot of other media, both traditional and non-traditional, also violated the code by not confirming the context of her statements. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was one of them; he fired Sherrod before he had all the facts, then did a 180. President Barack Obama apologized to her.

No such full showing of remorse as yet from Breitbart, who may be sued by Sherrod for libel. New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 court case that set the standard for libeling a public figure, will get a real test with this one, if Sherrod goes ahead. The standard of that court case includes libel and malice, and heaven knows a lot of the political back-and-forth of the last 15 years or so has certainly been malicious.

Yesterday came news about the website Wikileaks publishing a lot of information about the U.S. conduct of the war in Afghanistan - mostly during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Another Pentagon Papers? Not quite. A lot is already known about how the Afghan war has been conducted; that was not the case when the Pentagon Papers, about American policy in Vietnam between the 1940s and 60s, were published in The New York Times and The Washington Post in 1971.

This time, Wikileaks worked with the Times, the British newspaper The Guardian and the German publication Der Spiegel. All three vetted the website's work.

What is also known is that the rush to publish is more urgent today than it was 40 years ago - and the tendency towards mistakes, wrong assumptions and misjudgments is much higher. Accuracy, honesty and accountability are even more important today.

That means anyone who publishes a website has to abide by those old rules. They're not just for so-called "professional journalists" anymore.

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