The Press Must Get It Right

JUSTICE

KAZUO MUROOKA is worried about journalistic ethics. He is the senior researcher for one of Japan's leading newspapers, Asahi Shimbun, which is based in Tokyo. Asahi Shimbun was recently embarrassed by a situation in which a staff photographer deliberately defaced a rare coral reef in Okinawa in order to produce a dramatic photograph of so-called ``underwater graffiti.'' This picture was seen by most of the newspaper's 8 million readers.

Mr. Murooka and Asahi's New York bureau chief, Fumio Kanamaru, now are visiting United States newspapers and probing how editors work with journalists and staff photographers to ensure accuracy and high standards. They admit the defaced coral was probably an isolated incident and not representative of a newsroom ethic.

The broader issue is whether news staffs and editors occasionally cross over the acceptable line of journalistic procedure to produce a ``good'' story or to get an exceptional photograph.

The United States news establishment was shaken a few years back when a Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Washington Post was pulled after it was revealed that the reporter, who was probing drug use by children, had used a ``composite'' of a youngster named Jimmy. There was no real Jimmy. He was intended to be symbolic of poor ghetto-bound blacks in the area.

Would we use a composite in The Christian Science Monitor, Murooka asked?

The answer is ``no.''

Some papers would argue, however, that a clear message to the reader that the individual depicted was not real, but merely symbolic of a true situation, might justify a composite. I would have trouble with this. Newspapers are in the business of reporting news in terms of factual detail, quotations, analysis by authorities that focuses on actual situations.

A reporter must be able to stand behind his or her information. No fictions. Many people believe that reporters consider themselves a favored class of people who pursue a story with a vengeance - abandoning ethics and good taste if the situation requires.

Only libel law restricts journalistic irresponsibility, some news media critics claim.

There are sharp criticisms of ``Sullivan'' standards, which hold newspapers and other publications legally responsible only for malice or reckless disregard of the facts in stories dealing with celebrated people. The basis for proving libel is less strict when the complaining party is not well known.

Libel is not the point in the Asahi embarrassment. And it wouldn't be the issue if it happened in the US.

The issue is irresponsibility - toward the environment, as well as the truth. A reporter has a basic responsibility to play it straight and get it right. The same burden is on a photographer.

Recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that a journalist quoting a public figure may invent a quote as long as the quote does not ``alter the substantive content'' of what was said. This was a controversial, and split, decision, with the majority of two ruling that Sullivan standards were not violated but a dissenting jurist stressing that fabricated quotes are the equivalent of lies.

This case will almost certainly go to the US Supreme Court. And it is not unlikely that the high tribunal will make a distinction between what is legally allowable and ethically responsible.

In a free society, the press must not be censored or its voice muffled.

Government cannot be permitted to sanction those it dislikes or messages that discomfort it. This is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes, which have closed down news organizations and threatened, and occasionally killed, reporters and editors.

The late Potter Stewart, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, often pointed out that it was not a question of what one had a right to do; it was a question of doing what was right.

The news media may have a legal ``right'' to deface the environment, or use composites, and even to alter quotes, but such actions undermine the press's credibility and hence its effectiveness.

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