The Gold Standard for Journalism- by Vince Bzdek

Recently there has been much discussion of the wonderfulness of traditional media outlets, and the questionability of other sources of information. On this blog, we have reviewed articles in which the national news outlets have covered interior west and public lands issues poorly, or not at all. I like to think that everyone tries to do things right (good journalism, FS monitoring), but can fall short, due to a variety of pressures, more or less conscious biases, and so on.

Vince Bzdek is the editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, and wrote a thoughtful piece linked here comparing “real news” as opposed to fake news. I think the whole piece is worth reading, and provides us on this blog a handy list of criteria we can apply to news articles posted here. I’ll quote a few relevant paragraphs here:

Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect,” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel:

Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.

Journalism’s first loyalty is to its citizens.

The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.

Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.

Journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power.

Journalism must provide a forum for public criticism and comment.

Journalists must make the significant interesting and relevant.

Journalists should keep the news in proportion and make it comprehensive.

Journalists have an obligation to personal conscience.

We at the Gazette try to adhere religiously to these principles. In fact, any enterprise that purports to do real news should adhere to these principles, and you should hold us and them to these

About how to get at the “truth”:

The whole idea of objective reporting was never based on an assumption of bias-free journalists. That’s impossible, right? Instead, the concept centered on the idea that there is a “consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases do not undermine the accuracy of their work. The method is objective; not the journalist,” according to the APA.

This method involves a kind of triangulation – seeking out multiple authoritative sources, vetting them thoroughly, disclosing as much as possible about the sources, and allowing people who are accused or challenged in our stories to have the chance to comment before we publish the stories. That means always including opposing views.

In addition, what stories an outlet chooses to cover, or not cover, is a judgment call of what is “significant, interesting and relevant” which can vary person by person. It’s not like that’s a bias, but as we see on this blog, different people find different things interesting.

One of the structural problems I’ve found is that with Forest Service stories, if it’s about litigation, the FS is not allowed to comment (of course this makes sense, but..). Even when it’s about a project not in litigation, when I was working, I found that many public affairs people were careful not to counter claims directly as that sounds “defensive.” So if what Bzdek says is true, and I do believe that having at least two points of view described in a story makes sense, then this structure actually may prevent journalists from doing their jobs well on these topics.

I’d be really especially interested to know what the journalists and public affairs folks who read this blog think about this.

9 Comments

  1. What about Gifford Pinchot’s Maxim #5? (“Use the press first, last, and all the time if you want to reach the public.”) Seems to me a “no comment” approach by the FS does not fulfill the desired intent of the maxim. We should always respect, and have the opportunity to provide, different perspectives. This blog does well with that

    • Tony

      Enviro organizations certainly understand and adhere to “Pinchot’s Maxim #5”

      It is amazing that the Society of American Foresters doesn’t follow Pinchot’s Maxim #5 and that is one of the main reasons why I left the organization. They complain that they don’t have the budget yet most press is free public information and spreads from one media outlet to another like wildfire when controversy on a hot topic is involved. The other being that there are too many members there who are uninformed as to the science and sound more like enviros when you try to get some sort of agreement on appropriate policy.

  2. An interesting question. The Forest Service “perspective” should be in its administrative record, the same evidence that a court will use for its judgment. The agency should be able to tell a reporter where to look. And it could use its PR staff to embellish that story early on (before there’s anything to be defensive about). That said, I’ve always wondered about the gag rule after litigation. The powers that be must think their “responsible officials” aren’t that responsible?

    • No I think it is a legitimate concern, people could say things that would provide extra fodder during the litigation. It’s not just the responsible official, it’s the local public affairs person, the ID team leader, ID team members and so on. Silence is golden.. except when it leaves the impression with the public (who don’t have access to the admin record as a general rule) that there is only one side, or they will never know the other side. I posted about this in 2011 (the cone of silence). And how many reporters nowadays have time to look through an admin record (or even know what people are talking about within it?).

  3. If the public doesn’t have access to the administrative record, that’s an agency choice, so they are contributing to their problem. (They should be proud of their record.) If reporters can’t find what they need to know there, again that’s something an agency could choose to fix (by the way it manages its records or by helping the reporters find information). And they could have a policy that only the responsible official can comment on litigation (if they trusted their responsible officials). So I feel like the problem you’ve identified is one the Forest Service created for itself.

  4. Pingback: As Population Increases, More Wilderness is Needed? – A New Century of Forest Planning

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