Betraying the Public Trust

The Journalist’s Creed is a personal affirmation of journalism ethics written by Walter Williams in 1914. The creed has been published in more than 100 languages, and a bronze plaque of The Journalist’s Creed hangs at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. I remember standing in front of that plaque many years ago in that room and feeling a sense of pride that I came from that J-school where it all started. Note: Williams was the founding dean of the Missouri School of Journalism (my school).

Let’s take a closer look at the creed —

   – I believe in the profession of journalism.

   – I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.

   – I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.

   – I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.

   – I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.

   – I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one’s own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another’s instructions or another’s dividends.

   – I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.

   – I believe that the journalism which succeeds best — and best deserves success — fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international goodwill and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.

Wow, right? Wow.

Such powerful and inspiring words that almost make us forget what a shambles our current profession of journalism has become. For example, the handling of the COVID-19 situation by journalism is unforgivable. They took a very small story (by the numbers) and turned it into a worldwide panic. 

How can you tell? Well, go out and try to buy a roll of toilet paper or a case of water and let me know how that works out for you. We have lost it and the culprit is our journal of public trust who have DEFINITELY accepted a lesser service and betrayed it.  Walter would NOT be pleased. I’m NOT pleased and neither should you be. 

The massive media consolidation of the past decade has cut jobs in editorial journalism to the bone. Algorithms now write headlines for stories at our major newspapers based on what’s most likely to be clicked which means they are in essence, clickbait. By the way, these practices are NOT disclosed so the people just think they’re getting “the news.” But they are getting a narrative of the news controlled by six media companies (yep) and algorithms designed to scare them and piss them off.  It’s wrong.

The solution? Easy. Journalism must get back to its role as the protector of the public trust. Sounds great, but the six media companies running it have NO interest in the public trust. Correct, but they DO have an interest in gaining attention and THAT Is something WE control. We must start paying attention to outlets who follow the Journalist’s Creed and ignoring the rest until they do. Consumers of news CAN send a message and we need to do that before all that’s left is meaningless propaganda. I still believe in the profession of journalism. I believe they can do better.