Why basic journalistic standards matter

Competition. It’s one of the things that makes journalists tick, even thrive. We want to be first, beat our rivals, get the exclusive, lead the news cycle. We’re taught that speed matters, that we need to beat the other guy, be the first to break news — that that’s what matters in the business of journalism. Right? 

Wrong. 

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In fact, so terribly wrong.  

Yes, being the first can give you a sense of accomplishment, of victory.  Decades ago, there were three major broadcast networks and there was a feeling of achievement when your network was the first to break into scheduled programming with a special report. Now we have an unrelenting 24-hour news cycle. Who knows who is first on any given story? There are too many players on the field. 

Being wrong can devastate a journalist’s credibility and reputation — and be harmful to the people or communities being reported on — so it’s important to worry less about being first and more about being right, being accurate, being fair and having the utmost integrity. 

And to help with that, there are guidelines, important “rules of the road.” They’re what we call our journalistic standards.  

Upholding these journalistic standards and the principles of fairness and accuracy in our reporting, as well as transparency with our audience, leads to being right. Fairness is to look at all stories openly, with no preconceived notions and to hear all sides. Each of us has a bias — that’s just a fact. The obligation we have as journalists is to be aware of our own biases so we can incorporate that into our thinking when analyzing a story. We are all passionate about certain issues, of course, but we need to be as objective as possible. Objectivity doesn’t mean unfeeling or uncaring. After all, journalists are human too.  

Accuracy is about knowing and reporting facts precisely as they are and presenting each of these facts in full context, whether a piece of video or part of a story.  

As journalists, we do our best to be transparent, to explain to our audience why we are reporting something. Explaining who our sources are and why we believe they are credible affects how the audience see us. So instead of saying “NBC News has learned that XYZ was said in a meeting,” we prefer, for example, “Three senior justice department officials who were in the meeting told NBC News…” This transparency and attribution of all information helps gain trust. 

It’s also important to uphold our integrity and maintain independence from all government entities and corporate and business sponsors, because any conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest can become problematic. Are we reporting a positive story on a politician because an aide asked us to, and that aide may be a good source down the road? Are we allowing a sponsor to have a mention on air beyond the usual? Is there a possible quid pro quo, are we getting something in return for our coverage? If so, the audience might always wonder what our incentive is. 

All information needs to be verified, either by those directly involved in a story, by authorities with direct knowledge, or by family or eyewitnesses. That solid, 100 percent verification is what leads us to being right. And when we don’t have sufficient verification, but want to rush to report, mistakes happen. These mistakes hurt the reputations of not only the individual news organizations in the wrong, but all journalists.  

Major news organizations have been wrong about, and have had to retract and apologize for, many stories over the years. In 2020, for instance, some outlets broadcasted that when Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed, all of his children were on board, which was incorrect. In 2013, other outlets issued premature reports that arrests had been made in the Boston Marathon bombing incident that later had to be walked back. And in 2012, it was falsely reported by some that the Supreme Court had invalidated the individual mandate of the Affordable Health Care Act.  

One thing that all news organizations truly need is a strong reputation that begets credibility, trust and faith in the entire organization. Maintaining our reputation, our integrity, our independence is a vital role. And to accomplish that we must adhere to our standards. 

These standards are the basis for our reporting, our newsgathering, our production. Whether broadcast, cable, streaming, digital, social media — all of our journalists are held to the highest of standards. We have one huge responsibility to our audience: to get it right.  

If we keep doing that, reputation intact, all else will follow.