I’ve never really sat down to think about just how much trust is put into reporters. I guess it’s because I’ve spent most of my journalism career being a reporter myself, so I just knew it was there.
From the minute you leave the newsroom with an assignment, you’re basically on your own. Editors are always there to answer questions, but everything else is up to you.
No one is going to hold your mouse for you as you research the topic, or take your notes for you on your first interview or type out the first few sentences of your article. It’s just you, a notepad and some key electronics.
It’s up to the reporter to get facts straight from the get-go. Whether it be names and titles of sources or how long a certain event has been going on, the reporter should be the last person to get this information wrong. For the duration of the reporting process, reporters are expected to be the expert on the specific topic.
Sure, once the article is submitted, it gets turned over and read by several copy editors who check basic facts. Then, at least four other sets of eyes see it. But even before an article is submitted, there is a certain element of trust that everything is referenced, represented and recalled properly.
It isn’t until that trust is breached, until something goes wrong, that it becomes obvious that what seems to be the fate of the world — or, in this case, the paper — rests on their journalistic integrities.
Integrities which include doing research properly, getting facts straight, quoting people properly, writing down names correctly, being objective and the list goes on.
I guess this is why reporters are always told to keep their notebooks, because what is written down in the initial interview can be referred to as the truth. Even if the source claims they didn’t say something, and a reporter can go back to look up exactly what was said, this can be the difference between pleading guilty or not guilty for something such as libel.
This is also the reason why, whenever a question comes up in the newsroom about a quote or citing a source, the first response is: “Who wrote it? … Call them.”
Issues that involve clarifying certain sentences, quotes or names can be squashed easily by making just one phone call and referring to a reporter’s notes.
Trust allows the article to get put on the pages to be published. And when something seems incorrect, I trust that when I call the reporter to clarify, they are telling the truth the whole time.
Other issues concerning what the reporter does while on the field reporting aren’t so easy to keep track of. No one is there to tell you not to graciously accept a free meal, coupons or invitation to somewhere the general public has to pay for — exceptions are, of course, concerts or events you are covering.
There is only one thing that can stop a reporter from doing something inappropriate while on the field: their own journalistic integrity, or morals.
Ethics in journalism can be taught — for example the “Media Ethics” course all journalism majors are required to take — but they can’t be enforced. It’s up to the reporter to choose whether or not to be “ethical.”
It all comes back to the reporter. There is a certain element of trust that they will stay ethical while on the field, writing the story and turning in a finished article.