Lehrer’s Rules

In his last broadcast of NewsHour, Jim Lehrer presented a list of “guidelines of practice” for good journalism:

Do nothing I cannot defend. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

I’m with him so far, but none of this is specific to journalism, or to professional endeavors in general.

Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

That’s bullshit. Facts are facts. If a man is shot and killed and reporters can verify the situation, reserving judgement on whether or not the guy’s dead is nonsense.

Which leads to the realization that this guideline is really an insidious endorsement of biased journalism. There definitely is another side to the story “man is shot and killed by evil and selfish gunman”, and another side to “obnoxious man forces stranger to shoot and kill him”. Neither of those are news stories.

If you’re writing a story and you think that there is contradictory version with a reasonable claim to truth, then you’re probably not writing news.

Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

As smart? Even if I thought that worked for Jim Lehrer, journalists who only targeted viewers as smart as they were would be shooting over the heads of the majority of the population. Journalism is the art of explaining the facts as simply and as clearly as possible, so that viewers don’t need investigative and analytical expertise to understand what’s going on. This isn’t an excuse to make the facts simpler than they really are, but simply assuming that viewers are as smart as journalists is ignoring a major responsibility of the profession.

As caring? This seems like a recipe for wasting everyone’s time, and also implicitly endorses the idea that appealing to emotion is one of the main functions of journalism. Emotion is certainly one of the reasons people get interested in certain stories, but Lehrer himself claims that he’s not interested in the “entertainment” side of journalism.

As good? The only interpretation I can find for that is that Lehrer thinks viewers share his particular moral outlook, and that his particular view of morality is superior to any other outlook.

I don’t think we can take any of this literally. Beyond Lehrer’s rare conceit about him being “smart, caring, and good”, I think this guideline really amounts to “respect the viewer”. I can agree with that.

Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

Some people aren’t as smart as you. And maybe not as passionate or “caring”. And a few have fundamentally different senses of morality. When these differences affect the rest of the population (because a nitwit runs for vice president, or a community of religious fundamentalists endorses “honor killings”), it becomes news. Even if that news contradicts your assumptions about people.

Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

I agree with the general spirit of all of these.

And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

I understand the sentiment, but I consider this a very narrow view of “entertainment”. The reality is that viewers have a choice of how they spend their time, and the satisfaction of staying up on current events must be weighed against the immediate pleasures of lighter entertainment. Confusing news with light entertainment is a mistake, but simply taking the value of current-events media as a given ignores the greatest issue faced by journalists today: what are you offering viewers?