Journalistic integrity is dying

This past week, we saw a story emerge from the website The Atlantic. The story alleges that President Donald Trump, on a visit to France in 2018, refused to visit the Aisne-Marne cemetery because the men buried there were “losers and suckers.”

Who said as much? The story didn’t specify. In fact, only “unnamed sources” and “anonymous sources” were cited.

It should be noted that the editor of that site is an avowed Democrat whose hatred for the American President is well known.

When the story hit, it resonated and dominated social media, as well as cable news networks. With just two months before the Federal election, this was inflammatory and shocking.

Immediately, my doubts were raised. Not because of any other reason but for the lack of any credible sources.

Witnesses began to emerge to rebut the story. From the President’s personal aide, and former White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to former aide Hogan Gidley.

John Bolton, former National Security Advisor and no fan of the president’s after conflicts between them saw him let go from his job, had published a book earlier this year. Bolton devoted two pages in that book (published in June, and highly praised by many on the left) in which he recounted that day. Perhaps unbeknownst to the writer of the story, Bolton had unknowingly, pre-emptively, rebutted the allegations.

The decision was made because of bad weather. “Marine One’s crew was saying that bad visibility could make it imprudent to chopper to the cemetery. The ceiling was not too low for Marines to fly in combat, but fling POTUS was obviously something very different,” he wrote.

Bolton spoke to Fox News reporter, John Roberts about the subject.

Since the story emerged, almost two dozen witnesses have gone on the record to refute the Atlantic’s story.

Jeffrey Goldberg has since admitted that his claim “could be wrong.” He has not issued a retraction or a mea culpa but the veneer is cracked.

The Atlantic, it was revealed recently, is owned by a mega-donor to the Joe Biden campaign, Biden being the Democrat Party’s nominee running against Trump. This is important, as it speaks to the bias of the site.

It should also be noted that the same site issued a story Friday which calls for the Nobel Peace Prize to be ended. This comes on the heels of the president’s second nomination for the Prize. It’s not difficult to see the bias in the Atlantic’s writers.

I bristled when confronted by people who have abjectly defended the allegations of the Atlantic. Their only justification was the president’s “past behaviors” and statements, not facts. In fact, their only justification – if they were honest, even with themselves – is their profound hatred of the president driving their desire to blindly believe all negative stories about him.

Being the proud recipient of a graduate degree in Journalism, I returned to the very first lessons we were ever taught. First class of our first course – Introduction to Reporting – drilled into us the tenets of proper journalism.

  • Get both sides for a news story. If you do not have both sides, it is not a news story.
  • GET NAMES (Uppercase mine to emphasize how important we were told this is to do)
  • Get the proper spelling of names.
  • Get proper pronunciation of names (if on camera or radio)
  • Get contact information for the inevitable follow-up questions.

And the cardinal rule reiterated in every course, from Radio News, to Visual Journalism, to reporting in writing:

If you do not have a name, you cannot use the quote.

Not only every course, but every assignment. In the summer semester, where we attended classes four days a week, twice for each class, assignments were given out every other day. We heard these rules daily.

I covered a high-school jazz band playing the Montreal JazzFest for a feature story in my first semester. I had interviewed the band leader prior to the date, and arrived early to interview famil members before the concert began. After the concert, I interviewed others, including some of the musicians. For each interview, I had them speak and spell their names into my phone recorder, and obtained contact information.

When it came to writing the piece, due three weeks later, I found myself without the spelling of the first name of one of the soloists. I had video from which to work for description, but could not discern his first name and could not find it in my notes.

I immediately texted one of the mothers whose contact information I had. Given that it was mid-July, she was on summer holiday in the Maritimes. But she answered my text right away and provided me with the name of the saxophonist.

If I had not been able to identify the musician, I would have lost a valuable, enriching narrative from my story – because I would not have used the passage without his name. Granted, a feature story allows for some leeway but being someone who respects best practices, I wanted my story to be at its best when finished.

I cannot count the number of times students in my year – including yours truly – lost marks for not properly identifying an interviewee, or for using first names only, or – the worst – using the generic “a bystander” or “attendee” in place of a named source.

Using anonymous sources, trying to pass them off as credible witnesses, is a dangerous practice. Not only can they not be impeached in any rebuttal, they can literally say anything they want without reprisal of action against them. Slander suits have been, and can be won but not if the witness is unnamed and cannot be deposed – or even accused.

Moreover, it lends credence to what could be pure fiction based on nothing but bias. Those “sources” could be manufactured from the imaginations of the writer whose primary goal is to denigrate the object of the story.

And the most dangerous of all: if the practice of citing anonymous sources becomes accepted journalistic practice, it will open the floodgates to a deluge of malicious, partisan stories with the same goal: attack the primary subject of the story, influence the public, and never have to answer to scrutiny.

That is not how we were taught. This was not the practice I used in three intense semesters and dozens of assignments in journalism.

It has instilled in me a deep concern over how many people are so willing to believe anonymous sources over facts, proven and sworn. It is disturbing to see how facts cease to matter when one’s bias is so strong.

I truly hope we will not see this kind of shoddy work in the future; I am not, however, optimistic, given the political climate and the willingness from so many to believe what they read, especially if it feeds their confirmation bias.

I know that whatever I write, wherever my writing takes me, I will proudly sign my name and provide provable facts. I hope the new classes graduating from Journalism in recent years, and future years, will do the same.

It’s time to put integrity back into the Fourth Estate.

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