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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What Are the Rules of Professional Journalism?

With all the discussion of “fake news," allow me to share what I was taught as an intern at The Washington Post and what I have practiced over the years as a newspaper publisher, editor and columnist.

There are three distinct editorial elements in a legitimate newspaper, and the lines between them are clearly delineated. When these rules are followed, as they are at the Denver Post and all major dailies, that publication deserves our respect and trust.  While most newspapers and over-the-air TV stations honor these rules, the same can not be said about certain radio programs, internet news sources and cable television networks. Their blurring or violation of these rules allows people to accuse “the media” of being dishonest or biased, which only makes things worse.

The use of social media to spread false stories, aka “fake news,” and the willingness of people to believe what they read — especially when it fits their own opinions — has made the situation worse. But the real damage is done when we fail to distinguish between such non-journalism and the product of hard-working, ethical journalists.  Here are those three elements:

  • News articles can have bylines which may contain the term “staff writer,” “reporter,” or “correspondent.” The rules for news articles is that all opinion or statements of fact must be attributed to someone and not the opinion or statement of the reporter.
  • Editorials are the opinion of the newspaper, usually agreed to by an “editorial board” in the case of big-city dailies. They do not have a byline and are labeled as editorial opinion.
  • Columns are bylined and are the personal opinion of the writer and not the newspaper. The byline is distinctive, usually with a picture of the writer, so they are not mistaken as a news article.

When advertisements, like this one, are editorial in nature, the typeface is not the same as on the news pages, and the word “advertisement” appears at the top. That was not my choice. The Denver Post requires it.  The term for such ads is “advertorial.” 

[That's the end of what was published on Feb. 2 in the YourHub section of the Denver Post and in four Jefferson County weekly newspapers.  What follows are some additional thoughts by me on this subject. Your comments and questions are welcome.]
There's a lot of talk about "fake news."  So how can you identify fake news? It probably violates the rule for news articles mentioned above, which is that all claims or statements of fact must be attributed.  The question you as a reader need to ask is, "Says who?"  Let's say you read that Hilary Clinton had an illegal email server.  Says who?  What's missing in that statement is a phrase like "according to the Justice Department" or, better, a particular person in a particular role at the Justice Department.

As a reporter, you learn to be skeptical about everything you're told.  That's why professional news organizations won't print a story unless it is verified by two sources, even if those sources must remain anonymous, in which case you see phrases like "according to a source in the Justice Department." It's the job of the reporter's editor to know who that source is, even if the source must remain anonymous, so that the reporter is not just making up the source.  Occasionally, but only rarely, you see where that rule breaks down in a professional news organization, and they suffer for that lapse.  An example of that was the Rolling Stone article about campus rapes.  The editor had allowed an article to be published without demanding of the writer to share his sources. 

Sometimes a reporter is his own witness to something, but the article never uses the first person.  Instead of saying "I personally saw this happen," you'll see the phrase, "This reporter saw...."  but reporters are to use that as a last resort. It's always best to quote someone else.

I remember well my two weeks of training by the city editor of the Washington Post before I was allowed to write my first article.  One particular piece of training that sticks in my mind concerned obituaries.  The Post would publish an obituary on anyone when it was phoned in by a relative.  But after the reporter has taken down all the details, he was required to get the name of the funeral home which was handling the body of the deceased.  He does not accept the phone number of that funeral home from the caller.  Instead, he looks up the number of that funeral home in the phone book (nowadays on the Internet) and calls to verify that they have the body.  The purpose is to avoid printing a fake obituary.  It's a simple but essential step, because it is libelous to print that someone died when they didn't, and the newspaper could be sued.  

We all need to be vigilant and careful readers. The more outrageous a claim, the more you should be asking yourself, "Says who?"  If the article doesn't attribute that claim to a named and believable source, it is quite possibly a hoax.  

Every now and then someone will include me on a large mass-forwarding of some scandalous email.  It if sounds too good -- or too bad -- to be true, I always Google it, and more times that not, I quickly debunk the story.  If the recipients of that mass email were not blind copied, I will then "Reply All" and explain that it was a hoax. If the recipients were blind copied I at least reply to the sender with what I found out and ask him or her to send a correction.  I hope you will do the same.

A classic example of such emails was in 2009 when the claim started circulating that Obamacare was going to apply the Medicare tax (about 6%) to the sale of homes.  The emails said that if you sold a house for $200,000, you'd be charged, say, $12,000 sales tax on the transaction.  It was a complete distortion, and the perpetrators of this lie knew it, but it kept being circulated for what seemed like years, over and over again.  People believed it.  Was it ever retracted?  Of course not. (The tax was charged only on the profit, not the sales price, of investment properties, and even then only if the profit exceeded $200,000, as I recall.  Columns by me about this with the full facts can be found from 2009-2011 at, where all my columns are archived.)

I'd be happy to hear your input and answer reader questions about professional journalism -- not that I'm an expert or a journalism teacher, but because I do know something about the topic and it's worth discussing further.

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