The Coverage Question

Journalists covering the Monica Lewinsky story ought to have one eye over their shoulders. Their reading and viewing publics are back there, forming their own opinions not just about the news, but about the news gatherers.

Those opinions have not been elevated by the scramble to cover this latest Washington scandal - a scramble whose haste has led to more than the usual recourse to unnamed sources and unconfirmed facts.

But those factors don't constitute an indictment of the press. The simple fact is, this story surfaced - in admittedly dubious fashion - and enveloped key Washington figures from independent counsel Starr to President Clinton. It concerned integrity in government, and it had to be covered.

Sound coverage, however, doesn't come easily in a competitive environment influenced too often by 24-hour cable news operations and gossip-slinging Internet sites. The speed of the one and the licentiousness of the other encourage a low tone. Multiple sourcing, checking facts, waiting for a story to solidify - all suffer in these circumstances.

What to do? Avoid jumping to conclusions unjustified by the facts. Always remind readers and viewers what's proven and what isn't. Strive for balance. And focus attention on the questions of basic processes rather than fixing on the personalities that emerge in the course of allegation and investigation.

While frenzy and sensationalism have characterized much coverage of the White House's current troubles, balance, restraint, and reserved judgment have not fled. Smart readers and viewers will keep an eye out for them, and smart reporters and editors will keep them in clear view.

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