Lessons of the '60 Minutes' Report for Newspapers

By: (AP) The investigative panel's findings were damning. Clearly, it said, CBS failed to live up to its written standards of "accuracy and fairness" when it reported that George W. Bush had shirked his responsibilities as a National Guardsman.

But how does a news organization ensure that its reporting is accurate?

And how does a newspaper or broadcast operation weigh the imperative of getting the story right against the pressure to get the story first, to beat the competition?

The fact is, though everyone agrees that the news should be true, there are great differences among news organizations in how they make it happen.

"There are some basic principles that are probably widely accepted throughout the industry, but every newsroom has different standards that speak to the specific actions you are supposed to take," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, which works to improve journalism.

For example, she said, if a source with an unusual name is quoted, one newspaper might require two printed documents with the correct spelling, another might ask that the reporter doublecheck it with the source and a third may ask that the name be checked against old clippings.

The culture and policies of the news organization -- and sometimes a department within a news organization -- dictate what is done.

"There's probably nothing in any code of ethics that indicates all the ways that a reporter is supposed to verify that something is accurate," McBride said. "Instead, there is merely the presumption that you will do everything you can to make sure that it is accurate."

A trend exists toward more transparency in the media -- meaning, for example, that the media are more prone to explaining the reasons a source may have for providing information, McBride said. Or explicitly saying what reporters know or don't know at the deadline.

"I think the first rule should be we don't publish anything we don't know to be true," said Gene Foreman, former executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Shortness of time certainly would be a reason for an incomplete story, but not an inaccurate story."

Foreman, now a journalism professor at Penn State, noted that there is "pressure to cut corners and get the story out, even though you would think in a calmer moment that it needs more checking."

He added that investigative reporters -- even seasoned, capable ones, like those at CBS and the CNN team that produced the discredited report that the U.S. military used nerve gas on American defectors in Vietnam -- "tend to get excited that their premise seems to be coming true" and want to rush to publish.

So it often falls to editors to challenge reporters and tamp down their enthusiasm. "They have to have their feet held to the fire," Foreman said, and at CBS they did not.

McBride agreed. "We have gone from a time when we had blind trust in reporters to a point now where I think managers are training a responsibly critical eye on their reporters and photographers," she said.

Since 1973, Philip Meyer, a former national correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers who teaches at the University of North Carolina, has pushed reporters to use the scientific method. That means, among other things, always saying how you know what you know; these days, he said, more editors insist on knowing the identities of anonymous sources before they are used.

But it also means attacking your own story, the way a scientist attacks his hypothesis -- a difficult challenge to a journalist who "wants so much for his story to be true," Meyer said.

It also means putting all the information out there, so that others can try to replicate your conclusions. Few journalists have followed Meyer's practice of archiving data from his stories at a university, so that others could challenge them.

"That gave me more discipline than I would have had otherwise," he said.

But Meyer believes Web logs and the Internet have made it more likely that journalism will be challenged, and so what is in print and on the air is more likely to be accurate. He'd like to believe that the CBS scandal is the exception, not the rule.

At CBS, wrote Dick Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi, authors of the report, employees wanted to believe that their reporting on Bush's service in the National Guard was accurate.

"Everyone involved wanted the segment to be right," the authors write. "But in journalism, no less than in other fields, wanting is not enough."


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