Archive for Friday, September 24, 2004

Credibility gap

A mistake like the one for which CBS News apologized this week hurts not only CBS but all of the nation’s news media

September 24, 2004

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In our media-saturated society, there are thousands of sources for "news." Some are good sources; some are not. CBS News wants to be known as a reliable, credible source of news, but in the case of the Bush National Guard documents it publicized last week, it fell short of that goal.

One of the reasons many members of the mainstream news media have been quick to criticize CBS and its anchorman, Dan Rather, is that they (we) all know that a case like this affects not only the credibility of CBS, but the credibility of all reporters. The Journal-World had its own reminder of that fact this week when it discovered it had shared with its readers misinformation provided by source who claimed to have served in the military in Iraq.

Thanks to broadcast outlets and Internet communications, people have many, many choices of where to get information and whom to believe. Sources like network newscasters and established newspapers work hard to establish themselves as the most ethical, factual and unbiased source of news coverage in the nation. But one gaffe like the one Dan Rather and CBS apologized for this week, is a huge blow to that reputation.

Ironically, as part of that apology, Rather defended the use of documents that now appear to have been forged as "an error that was made, however, in good faith and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of investigative reporting ..." Most journalists see it as no such thing. Good investigative reporting would have raised enough questions about this story to indefinitely put it on hold until the documents and the information had been verified.

Even more ironic is that whatever verifiable facts might have been presented in a story about Bush's National Guard record have been completely overshadowed by the flap over the documents. One of the main goals of good reporting is to shed light on a subject so the public can better understand it and evaluate its impact. This story did neither before sinking into a debate over the reporting itself.

All of us in the news media constantly ask members of the public to be intelligent consumers of the news, to carefully evaluate the sources from which they get their information. With all the random information available from various sources these days, professional journalism outlets strive toward a higher standard of ethics and credibility than often can be found in Internet chat rooms or bulletin boards.

In the heat of the chase for more "news," more quickly, Rather and CBS fell far below that standard. It's a mistake that casts a shadow on all news media and one that reminds us of constantly working to justify the public trust.

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