Freedom of information but press responsibility, too

Journalists, if they are true to their vocation, naturally favor open government and as much access to information as possible. The more facts they can obtain, the better able they are to perform their task of informing the public and fostering the process of democracy. It is not surprising, therefore, that news organizations and media in the United States bristle at the thought of tightening up on the Freedom of Information Act. But the question needs asking: are they equally zealous in pursuing their own responsibility -- namely, maintaining the highest standards of integrity, objectivity, fairness?

The public can be pardoned its disappointment in the press when it hears of some of the dubious and downright dishonest practices of the mass media. Consider these revelations:

* Western news photographers in Belfast were reportedly paying youngsters to pose with an IRA flag or otherwise fabricate scenes of violence while waiting for the death of Bobby Sands. Canadian, French, Australian, Finnish film crews are said to have been engaged in such reprehensible practices.

* Illicit tape recordings were made of telephone calls by Prince Charles while in Australia. The transcripts were then offered to news media, including a West German women's weekly which reportedly paid $50,000 for them. And injunction has stayed publication.

* Recently one of the leading US newspapers, the Washington Post, admitted that an article about an eight-year-old heroin user had been fabricated. It returned the Pulitzer Prize which the article had won.

the last event (and a multitude of others could be cited) rocked the entire world of American journalism. Newspaper and broadcast editors across the country hotly discussed the issue of press credibility. Debates were held, editorials written. Even the embarassed Washington Post ran a four-page explanation of how the notorious article, "Jimmy's World," came to be published -- a wordy explanation which nonetheless left questions unanswered.

The momentary surge of self-examination and soul-searching was no doubt salutary. Such an experience goads every publisher, editor, and reporter into pulling up his or her socks. But how deep does the chastening go and how long will it last? It is no secret that stiff competition in the news business and the pursuit of audience and profit sometimes lead to a distortion of the news. How determined is the profession to resist such distortion?

Certainly there are signs in recent years of growing concern about lapses of ethical behaviour in the fourth estate. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has just published a small book entitled "Playing It Straight" setting out some fundamental principles for guiding the press. If journalists everywhere heeded them, we would see an enhancement of the press and a restoration of public confidence in it. As the Preamble cogently puts it:

"The First Amendment, protecting freedom of expression from abridgment by any law, guarantees to the people through their press a constitutional right, and thereby places on newspaper people a particular responsibility. Thus journalism demands of its practitioners not only industry and knowledge but also the pursuit of a standard of integrity proportionate to the journalist's singular obligation."

Just so. Fulfilling that responsibil ity should be the goal of every newsman or woman valuing the profession of journalism.

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