The art of discretion

By Ruth Davenport

It’s the plague of every professional that words used in their business find their way into general use and are corrupted through gratuitous abuse by an ignorant public.

We may not be professionals up here, but we face the same problem. On a very regular basis, the words "good journalism" are used as leverage to force us to serve someone’s purpose.

Individuals and groups approach us every day with "monster scoops!" and subsequent requests for coverage. We’re always incited to do their bidding, because to not do it would be a disregard of perceived "good journalism."

Allow me to explain something. The concept of "good journalism" is much more complex than simply taking a few allegations and splashing them across a page.

True good journalism consists of taking those allegations and suggestions and researching them, determining the truth of the allegations, finding alternative perspectives and then making a choice to publish or not publish. Yes, that’s what I said: sometimes good journalism means not publishing "The Scoop of the Century!" because real journalism reveals the scoop to be unsubstantiated conjecture or just plain crazy talk. Critical thinking, examination, interviews and reading until you’re blind are all elements of "good journalism."

Leaping up and down, inserting q-tips in ears until stuck and impulsively publishing stories founded on individual grievances, conspiracy theories and obsessive desires for 15 minutes of fame are not.

There’s a generally accepted premise that media exists to serve the best interests of a society. That means weighing every story and deciding who will really benefit from it. Sometimes there’s a lot of work that goes into making that decision and sometimes it’s really easy.

Either way, good journalism means staying true to the ideal of serving the public. It’s never something you should take personally.

I don’t think there’s any way of convincing the world to stop traipsing through our door and telling us they’ve discovered Jimmy Hoffa’s remains in a planter outside the library but the university administration is engaged in a conspiracy theory to cover it up. I don’t know how to tell them that their club project to re-tile the floor of their clubhouse isn’t exactly front-page material. And there’s no way to stop them from huffing and declaring that "Good journalism is clearly dead!" when we refuse to publish these stories. Still, I can dream. I can dream of the day when we say "Sorry, these facts don’t hold up," and the person bows and leaves in full respect of our practice of good journalism.

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