I am proud that Landmark's papers, at least, are not mired in that gloom. As evidence, I think of Greensboro's series showing how care and kindness survive against all odds in a mental hospital Stories like these are an important part of the human experience. They adhere to Rebecca West's dictum that our duty is to "reflect the face of the age. Optimism has been the wellspring of American achievement. Even in the worst times, people and institutions make progress. We should be generous in coverage of achievement; our pages should reflect the grit, devotion and durability of the human spirit.
We should nourish hope.
The s brought several versions of "new journalism. Newspapers squandered a bit more of the public's confidence before they tamed and finally rejected the cult of advocacy. Then, in the wake of Watergate, some newspapers went on a binge of investigative reporting. Much of it was petty and had no apparent purpose except the thrill of the chase.
Again, we must ask, "What is the motive? It should be directed and edited with care and meticulous attention to accuracy and fairness. Many investigations produce dry holes or, worse, thin stories. We should have the courage to abandon these no matter how much effort was expended or how much ego is on the line. Landmark papers offer examples of the firm and thoughtful judgment needed before going into print with investigative pieces.
Hunt met the fairness test. The Pilot and Ledger printed powerful stories exposing an abortion mill based on direct knowledge of a reporter who offered herself as a potential patient. In each case, our purpose was clear, and our story was thorough and fair.
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Most of our communities' failures are rooted in complex problems. A truly excellent newspaper will spend most of its investigative skills digging into and explaining these circumstances. We misdirect readers if we concentrate on narrow problems and inflate their significance. Today, we often hear the press described as arrogant.
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I think this is a case where the conspicuous behavior of a few prominent networks and newspapers and some of their celebrated journalists unfairly taints us all. The public has come to detest the defensiveness and reluctance to admit errors of some of the media's elitists. Landmark's newspapers are not arrogant or defensive. All Landmark papers actively seek public criticism. Some hold frequent meetings with community groups. Others have regularly scheduled critiques for their editors and reporters by outside critics. Some monitor accuracy by mailing questionnaires to news sources. The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star have had a full-time ombudsman since , and I believe this office has greatly improved our readers' trust in the newspapers.
Landmark papers try to correct mistakes promptly and fully and prominently enough to mend the damage. Ours were among the earliest papers to adopt forthright corrections policies. There are times when it is tempting to pull punches on corrections, particularly when we have been guilty of bias or questionable ethics.
We must discipline ourselves to overcome these temptations.
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Making full corrections and owning up when we are unfair are the best means of assuring readers that we care and will not always have the last word. In any case, it's the honest thing to do. Now I have saved the most difficult subject for last. It is the problem of accuracy and fairness and understanding and perspective that Hodding Carter raised.
You know more than I do about the scores of reasons that inaccurate or unfair stories get into print. Most of these lapses are unintentional and are aggravated by the conditions of our craft. Let me comment on three causes. Occasionally reporters let their biases slip into stories.
On rare occasions, reporters like the notorious Janet Cooke manufacture information or knowingly leave out material that's essential to fairness. As egregious as these offenses are, I think they are the smallest of our problems. It's rare indeed when you let those kinds of stories get out of the newsroom. And you don't have much trouble deciding how to deal with a few reporters who write biased or false stories. More difficult are mistakes that arise from omissions, inadequate checking and the urge to get it out first.
I think these are the worst threats to our credibility, because they occur most often. The inaccurate facts that are commonplace in newspapers. The too-frequent stories that are incomplete or lacking in context and balance, and thus fail to convey a true picture of what happened. When you consider that we must create a new newspaper every day, there can be no simple solutions.
I can only urge a persistent emphasis on the fundamentals, supported by a conviction that accuracy is the most basic journalistic value. Readers expect us to be fair as well as accurate. They want our facts to be in context and to add up to a true picture. All of this, as you know, takes careful editing, attention to detail, and a lot of communication with reporters. It takes time, and we never seem to have enough time.
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But the reality these days is that readers don't expect to get the first information from the newspapers. Most people get the headlines first on radio or TV. We damage ourselves if we get it first at the expense of getting it right. I've seen TV rush onto the air ahead of us with inaccurate information, while we waited to nail down the facts. We should never be afraid to get it right before we publish.
Perhaps our most difficult problem comes from the inability of reporters and their editors to understand complex or unfamiliar subjects. We are reporting complicated subjects now that we barely noticed a decade or two ago. We have thrown at the newsrooms fields like medicine, technology, finance and economics. Even old beats like courts and education have grown complex. Meanwhile, readers are better-educated and more sophisticated and discriminating.
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They expect us to understand these complex subjects. They expect us to report them with as much authority as the sports department reports baseball. I'm afraid the gap between our knowledge of these fields and readers' expectations is wide. Readers are quick to recognize when we don't understand a subject as well as they do. I have one suggestion. We need to keep reporters for longer tenures on beats that require specialized knowledge. I see enormous differences in quality of reporting that are related to time and experience on beats like business and education.
I'm aware that holding reporters on beats is not easy.
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But keeping good reporters on specialized beats longer should be a serious goal. It would reward our readers with reporting that is more perceptive and authoritative. Now let me put my remarks into perspective. I believe newspapers, and particularly ours, are better than ever. They are more accurate, more complete and more interesting. Even so, our readers are holding us to a higher standard.
They will turn us off quickly if we don't keep their trust. Am I sounding the bugle to retreat from aggressive journalism? Am I calling for bland newspapers? That's the last thing I want. Any editor who's been here awhile knows there are no sacred cows in Landmark newsrooms. If anybody thinks there are any sacred cows, let's corral them and examine their horns. No territory of legitimate public interest should be off-limits to fair and competent reporting.
No story of importance to our communities should go unreported because we failed to dig deeply enough.