Policing the fourth branch

Journalism is a profession which requires public trust.

Without trust, journalists, including those of us at the Northern Star, will quickly become homeless.

In America, freedom of the press has allowed journalism to act as the so-called Fourth Estate, an unelected branch of government.

For the public to take its news sources seriously it is necessary for journalists to report every bit of news, even if it’s embarrassing to the news organization.

On Aug. 19 the Chicago Sun-Times emblazoned the headline “Ex-publisher hit with fraud charges” across its front page. Kudos to the Sun-Times.

Any newspaper reporting on government or commercial corruption and acts as the Fourth Estate must also report on its own internal corruption.

How else can journalists expect to be taken seriously by the news-consuming public?

Other news organizations have preceded the Sun-Times in its sound ethical decision.

In 2003 New York Times reporter Jayson Blair became caught in a whirlwind of controversy surrounding stories he fabricated. The controversy was revealed by none other than the Times itself.

The New York Times sought to mend the situation by reviewing 73 articles written by Blair since 1998 for inaccuracies or out-and-out fabrications.

In 1998 a 25-year-old up and comer at The New Republic, Stephen Glass, faced a similar situation. A Forbes.com reporter named Adam L. Penenberg launched an investigation into a questionable story Glass wrote on a computer hacker’s convention.

Step by step, he discovered the article was a complete and total fabrication. Forbes presented the finding to Glass’s editor, Charles Lane, a few days later. Lane launched his own investigation and Glass went down in the flames of infamy.

Another good response, albeit one whose impetus was another publication, Lane chose to act instead of ignoring the report and protecting the publication.

Commendable to be sure.

Recent polls indicate public trust in the media has slipped significantly since the mid-1980s.

A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll showed the public felt the believability of newspapers had greatly decreased.

Twenty-one years ago, 84 percent of poll respondents said they found their local daily newspaper believable.

By 2005 those numbers are hovering around 54 percent.

Not a good situation for journalism but one that can eventually be overcome if the media increasingly acts as its own system of checks and balances.

Agree? Disagree? Contact us at www.northernstar.info.