The slippery slope of truth


April 21, 1992|By Gideon Berger

IF THERE IS one universal value among people, it is to be true to others and ourselves.

It was this notion of truth that I always had found so noble, and that motivated me to study journalism -- one of the few professions that even claims to be driven by such ideals.

At American University's journalism school, I am still learning how to communicate the news to a mass audience. However, in my classroom and student newspaper experience, I'm discovering that what constitutes news may have more to do with reporters' ambitions and biases than with actual, objective events.

Recently in my advanced reporting class, the professor presented this hypothetical question: Suppose you see your mayor locked in an embrace on a dark street with a woman who is not his wife. You then observe them enter a hotel and walk into an elevator together. What do you do?

Two of my classmates suggested staking out the hotel room and taking pictures of the couple when they emerged. I suggested this might be a violation of their right to privacy. Few people seemed to think so.

One student said she would report the incident because people want to hear about sex. Another said she would cover it because it could boost her career. Neither mentioned what seems an obvious reason to consider reporting the story -- that a pattern of marital unfaithfulness could damage the mayor's ability to govern. Have we forgotten the legacy of Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry so quickly?

It's not hard to see, even from my limited vantage point, why many journalists continue to be held in such low regard by most Americans. The tabloid approach to news -- in magazines, newspapers and on television -- is becoming the role model for tomorrow's reporters.

Sometimes even the news reporters are bigger than the news. During the Persian Gulf war, for example, CNN correspondent Peter Arnett opted to stay in Baghdad -- though he knew his stories were being censored by the Iraqi government. If he knew that his reporting was not contributing to truth, but to political propaganda, why stay? Or, put another way, why be a reporter when you can be a celebrity?

In "Public Affairs Reporting," a required text for my class, the authors say that "reporters must be willing to devote the time and effort to document sources." Sounds fine in the ivory tower world of American University.

But when the mainstream media ran the story on Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, they picked it up from a supermarket tabloid that paid Flowers for her interview. Washington Sen. Brock Adams ended his campaign for re-election because eight anonymous women -- whose stories were splashed across front pages and television networks -- claimed he sexually assaulted them.

Whatever happened to the two-source rule? How can we so readily use anonymous sources and still be confident we're not being manipulated by political wannabees or even emotional psychotics? Who carries the burden of proof in such stories?

Such issues are raised in my classes, but rarely resolved. At the end of one ethical discussion, my professor said that in the "real world" we may not need to worry about ethics very much.

In a world full of gray answers to black and white questions, truth's slope is starting to look more slippery than I imagined. A year from now, when I do enter the real world, I'm hoping I'll still worry about finding a foothold as I move toward that universal value.

Gideon Berger is a journalism student at the American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

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