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How do we find what's true?

New-style media needs consumers who can discern truth

By JOHN HUGES / May 17, 2000



ELSAH, ILL.

This article is an adaptation of a speech delivered by Monitor columnist John Hughes at the recent Principia College 51st Annual Public Affairs Conference. Mr. Hughes, now editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, is a former editor of the Monitor and US State Department spokesman.

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It's important to ask: How good is the press? Which branches of it can I trust? Where will I find balance and substance instead of trash and sensationalism? How believable are the anonymous sources on the Internet? How can we trust the press amid the rapid pace of technological change and the apparent erosion of journalistic ethics?

How, in other words, do I find truth?

No industry has felt the impact of technological change more significantly than the communications industry.

When I began my career in journalism, we used to write our stories on a typewriter. A long, unwieldy editing and production process followed before the final product appeared - a printed newspaper.

Today reporters type their stories on laptop computers and transmit them electronically and instantly to their home offices. There, stories move from computer to computer, undergoing the editing process, getting headlines written, and flowing into page make-up ready for printing with the touch of a computer button.

In TV news, too, technology has made for instant coverage of major events around the world, and even in space. CNN has transformed our lives in a remarkably short time.

Some years ago I temporarily detoured from journalism and was serving as State Department spokesman. One of my duties was to decide which news organizations got the limited number of seats aboard the secretary of State's plane when we traveled abroad. At that time I dismissed CNN as a fledgling news organization with a limited audience that would probably never amount to much. But look what influence CNN has achieved today.

Because news is now transmitted instantly, the consequences of getting it wrong are more serious. The responsibility for getting it right is much greater. Of the war in Vietnam, it used to be said that it was the first conflict that brought the horrors of war into American living rooms. That was true, but several days elapsed during which there was time for reflection and editing before the footage actually appeared on TV screens.

By the advent of the Gulf War, technology had changed all this. Correspondents, using relatively portable transmitting equipment, were able to broadcast from the middle of the desert live, and appear instantly on American television screens. Thus we saw a network correspondent reporting that Scud missiles, reportedly carrying chemical agents in their warheads, were incoming. The initial report was false. There were Scud missiles, but not with chemical warheads. By the time the erroneous information was corrected, millions of viewers may have missed it.

The roles of reporter and editor are even more critical today in the rush to publish or broadcast without forfeiting integrity.

While the press can be a significant force for good, there are also lapses from professional journalistic standards that are disturbing. Some years ago I sat on the Pulitzer Prize board that awarded a prize to a Washington Post reporter, Janet Cooke. It was a moving story about a child crack dealer. It read beautifully. It seemed well documented. There was just one thing wrong with the story - the child crack dealer she wrote about didn't exist.

You'd think such a scandal would put a serious crimp in journalistic invention and plagiarism, but alas such transgressions are still with us.

Manipulation of the news is a problem, and an embarrassment to journalists of integrity. For instance, take NBC's account of unsafe fuel tanks in GMC trucks. To illustrate the story, NBC reenacted some of the crashes for TV - using little exploding rockets attached to the tanks to create dramatic visual effect.

In another perversion of the truth, network cameras displayed footage of dead fish in Idaho, reputedly killed by some environmental disaster. Only trouble was, the fish weren't really dead. They'd been stunned to provide the shot the cameras needed.

Too often we have tasteless intrusiveness: the cameramen up a tree, shooting through windows the families of hostages who have pleaded for privacy; the TV reporter who holds a microphone in the face of an 11-year-old AIDS victim and asks how he feels knowing he's going to die.

It's against this background that we come to the reporting on one of the most tragic and disturbing national scandals of recent times, the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair. The private lives of public figures are not off-limits to reasonable scrutiny by the press. That's the price that must be paid by those who seek our votes, demand our trust, and make significant decisions. However, this scrutiny by the press must be reasonable and purposeful, not merely prurient.

Especially in the early days of the coverage, some very prestigious news organizations made mistakes and were obliged to make retractions.