Journalism 101: Keep Ego in Check

Article excerpt

The next Jayson Blair may be sitting in my classroom next fall, challenging me to prove that "journalistic ethics" is not an oxymoron. Each year, I tell students: Don't make things up; don't take credit for someone else's work; don't become bigger than the story; attribute your information; seek multiple sources. Those were the rules I lived by for nearly 20 years as a reporter, editor, and producer in newspapers and cable news.

For my students, those rules sometimes seem as quaint and outdated as looking up a word in the dictionary. Why look up a word when you have an electronic spell checker? Why have journalistic values when no one believes the media anyway? Even The New York Times makes things up. The damage of the Times scandals of Mr. Blair and prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg is the taint on everyone and everything in the news media today. Whom can you trust if you can't trust the Times?

As a journalism educator, I am the first line of defense in making sure people with the right head and the right heart enter the profession I believe is one of the hardest, most under-appreciated, and most essential lines of work on the planet. But attitudes within journalism and within our culture will ensure there will be others who will lie, cheat, cut corners, and do whatever it takes to get ahead.

We Americans have a value system that rewards notoriety. Not long ago, USA Today ran a rogue's gallery of 15-minutes-of-fame celebrities who profited from their disgrace. The reward for journalism school graduates today who follow a strong moral compass is a truckload of college loan debt and a salary that comes close to qualifying them for food stamps. The news industry should be thankful each day that many young journalists are still willing to take the abuse.

But I see students who are tempted by the desire to please and to "just do it." If articles about Blair's motives are to be believed, fear of failure and the pressure to provide stories quickly opened the floodgates of fabrication. Stephen Glass, The New Republic's poster boy of falsehood, gave similar excuses. I've heard them before from some of my students and from some former co-workers. …