An issue of integrity

reporterFrom my previous post “Race and the Catholic Church” commenter Andy Chamberlain raised an issue that I want to put to rest on this blog. I know tmatt has dealt with this issue throughout his long career as a religion reporter, and it is important because it is critical for those in religion to GetJournalism, just as it is important for those in media to GetReligion.

Here is what Chamberlain, who is a pastor in the United Kingdom, had to say in his first comment:

Maybe I’m being a cynic here, but media people are not there to be fair. The Post, like any other media outlet, doesn’t want to present the truth, it wants to sell a story; the two are different. Like most other media outlets the Post will skew a story to emphasize some things and ignore others, and to give it as much shock factor as possible. The fact that people are hurt, or the issues are misrepresented is not something that many parts of the media care about.

My perception (and this is a data set of one, and there is nothing implied personally at anyone in the media) is that journalists will deliberately misrepresent the truth to sell their output, and for me that amounts to lying. I am guessing that many other people will feel the same way. In fact, my ‘default setting’ for media stories about religion is that the journalist is lying, and will have no qualms about damaging the people, misrepresenting the facts, and using the dreaded “quote marks” to rubbish someone or something, if it suits them.

NotebookPenI obviously cannot speak for all journalists, especially journalists outside of the modern journalistic tradition established in the United States, but I do know from growing up in a journalism-oriented family, four years of studying journalism in college and nearly two years as a professional that the primary goal of a journalist is to be fair and accurate.

Skewing, misrepresenting and lying are forbidden in the minds of most American journalists. Non-journalists must remember that we are human and we do make mistakes and misinterpret things, but very rarely is that ever intentional (think Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass).

There is another view of journalism that people on both sides of the religious divide take part in, and that is the practice of “directed reporting” or journalism for a cause. It was practiced a great deal in the United States until the 1920s and is still practiced in Europe on a large scale. This type of journalism can involve leaving out key facts, or embellishing others to make a point. We here at GetReligion do not believe there is a place for that type of journalism in the United States and would hope that most Americans would agree.

The argument that journalists are out there deliberately distorting the truth or omitting facts from the story to “heighten the shock value and sell copy” fails because integrity and the reader’s trust are the only asset a news organization has. Without trust established by an honest effort for truth and fairness, a mainstream media organization will sink, fast.

A personal example involves an article about my home church here in Washington, Grace D.C., published by one of the local newspapers. The reporter, who knows the religion beat as well as anyone, described the congregation as “yuppie” and that was not appreciated by the pastor or many of the members. But the fact remains, and most attending the church would admit this, that the church does come off as “yuppie.” So is this a case of a reporter deliberately misinterpreting the facts on the ground, or more of a case a new church in a large city sensitive to media coverage that it never asked for?

It is true that the public’s trust in the media is down.That has more to do with ethical scandals at leading news organizations and the stupid mistakes reporters like myself unfortunately make from time to time, such as misspelling a name or getting a fact wrong, rather than intentional wrongdoing. And there’s always disappointment when the media says the “king has no clothes on.” People may not like it, but it’s often the truth, as it was in my church’s case.

The media can be a pastor’s greatest asset. While there should be more Christians in the American media, how much is that the fault of the media organizations more than the fault of Christian colleges and churches?

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  • Robert

    I am a retired professor at an Ivy League University in New England. Over the years I have occasionally been interviewed by reporters on delicate issues, and with one exception every time I have read the resulting article I have found a serious distortion of what I said (once or twice even a fabricated quote). Often I have explained how something I am saying might be misquoted or partially quoted or misunderstood in a way that would harm someone. In over half of the cases my words were misrepresented or misquoted, or my meaning distorted, in precisely the way I had cautioned the reporter about, with ensuing harm to others. On principle I now no longer talk to any media about anything.

    I do not think that these reporters usually set out to misquote or distort what I said in order to sell papers. Rather, reporters hear what they hope to hear, interpret partial notes to reflect what they had hoped to hear, and sharpen their prose to please their supposed audience, to impress their editors and to nourish their own self-image of high journalistic competence. Almost always all this happensl unconsciously. Even taping an interview doesn’t seem to help — it’s as easy to hear what you hoped to hear when you listen to a tape as when you listen to your source. In retrospect, I also have now concluded that explicitly telling a reporter how your views might be misinterpreted is the surest way to implant that very misinterpretation in the reporter’s mind as something you actually meant to say.

    This is not a matter, to use your example, of characterizing a congregation as “yuppie” though one of your sources has denied it or is offended by it. It is a matter of a reporter’s actually hearing his/her source claim that the congregation is yuppie, when the source actually said precisely the opposite. This is all too common., at least in my personal experience, and it is has utterly poisoned the well of journalism for me.

    Tell me, please, do journalism schools pay much attention this very natural human tendency to misreport and misinterpret, even to oneself in the privacy of one’s own mind? Or do they allow a student to go out into the world supposing that his/her memory is a generally reliable thing and that their first understanding of another’s words is generally on target?

    Certainly in my own courses in the humanities, I have found that very few students have been able to remember accurately most of what had been said in classes and assigned readings; even when a misunderstanding is discussed one-on-one during office hours and the student goes away with new clarity, the old misunderstanding often reappears in the student’s exams later. So this is not just a problem that reporters have.

    But is is such a wide-spread problem these days that media — nay media — cannot, in my experience, be relied on for either truth or fairness, even though reporters and editors mean to be fair and truthful and takes great pains to do so. I fear that it is not the process or the institutions that are broken, but the human beings who work in them. They seem to me to be broken in ways that I do not understand how to fix.

    What is to be done, then? I do not know.

  • Robert

    Oops! That should read: “media — any media — cannot” in the next-to-last paragraph.

  • Michael

    I think journalism schools are concerned about teaching students to be very conscience of what they hear and how they interpret it. On the same token, I have been challenged in a few situations about quotes or comments and while I have, unfortunately, made some mistakes, there is also a companion phenomenon: sources aren’t nearly as articulate or as clear as they think they are and sometimes have regrets when they see their words in print. Especially in paraphrasing, where a journalist is trying to encompass ten minutes of conversation into a single sentence, there can be differences in what the reporter hears and what the source says or thinks they are saying.

  • Maureen

    I think there is also a very natural tendency for reporters to find a certain “slant” on a subject which they think is storyworthy, and then to see everything according to the slant. Also, there’s the infamous tendency of reporters to find the biggest and most outrageous freak in an organization, and then paint this one non-representative person as being a typical member of it.

    Being involved in science fiction fandom, medieval history groups, and the like has been a real education on such things. (Though mainstream society is a good deal more comfortable with such things than it used to be, so the stories tend to be better now.)

    Organizations I’ve been in that want more representative stories written about them often have to almost segregate reporters from the organization, present them with a ready-made slant, and ride herd on them as long as the reporter is there to make sure they never get the wrong idea. (And in the background, have somebody riding herd on the freaky folks.)

    Now, this isn’t to say that all reporters need to be mother-henned like this. There are some reporters out there who are actually grownup human beings who are interested in seeing the world first and writing about it later, instead of being so busy composing the story that they miss what’s going on.

    But I think most folks who’ve ever read a story written about something they know have had that sinking feeling of seeing basic points horribly misunderstood, even if it’s just a bad explanation in a local paper of what an Eagle Scout is. Every time we non-journalists see an error like that, we say the same thing: “If those reporters can screw up something that easy, I wonder what else they get wrong?” And let’s not even mention how many people I know who saw their names printed in the newspaper for the first time — spelled wrong.

    Fact-checking is the root of journalism. Journalism today is rotten at the roots.

    The good news is that reform is always possible and fairly easy. All you have to do is convince journalists that fact-checking is actually important. Or employ a lot of sharp-eyed and talkative little old ladies and give ‘em the cellphone numbers of every reporter on your staff, so that the little old ladies can tell the reporters every time they get their facts wrong.

    Oh, wait, that’s what blogs are for…. Heh!

  • Huw Raphael

    I have many friends from college who are now in journalism in one way or another. They all agree with you in their view of their field.

    Yet my friends and I have often discussed that I (and some others, of course) don’t believe in an impartial observer. While a cynic may wish to say a story is for the selling and the profit, I prefer to say a story is for the telling of it to the reader. I hope the teller – and the reader – enjoy the process, but I don’t imagine either the teller or the reader is impartial.

    So for all the reporter’s attempts to prove his 100% impartial writing, I can’t imagine it to be true: nor would I *want* it to be true. None of my friends nor the writers of this blog are the sort of people I wish to imagine as, well, Vulcans. Emotions, opinions and illogic will colour any story any human writes.

    Should it not be so? Should it not be celebrated to be so? Shouldn’t we remove the facade?

    When we talk of media bias, I don’t think the choices are “to have or not to have” I think the choices are honesty or dishonesty about a real bias that can not but exist among humans. One may write with or against one’s biases and one’s writing may be amazing either way. But one is biased and that bias will come out. I think it’s only when we insist on an impossible impartiality, thus creating an inhuman standard, that we find fault in the reporting.

  • andy chamberlain

    Dear all,

    This entry has arrived on a very busy Saturday for me, but I would like to respond, and maybe comment on the other views expressed here; I’ll do that in the next 24 hours hopefully.

    Let me just say that this; my instinct is to support and encourage people, and that includes media people. I enjoy and respect the work of the team here, and contributors. My default setting for forum contributors here as well is ‘respect’ because I don’t think you all would be here if you didn’t care about these very important issues of integrity and honesty.

    I’ll write more when I get the chance.


  • andy chamberlain

    Okay, here are some comments, and also some evidence, case studies, for what I am talking about.

    First some comments.

    Journalists make mistakes because they are human, and we all make mistakes for the same reason. This issue is not about ‘honest mistakes’; I make many of them myself, and would expect to make allowance for others who do so too.

    Second, I think it’s acutally quite rare for journalists to lie in the traditional sense of communicating an explicit untruth – so a journalist interviews Bob and Bob says ‘I never slept with Martha’ and the journalist reports this as ‘Bob admits to sleeping with Martha’. I don’t think that happens much.

    What does happen is that Bob says to the reporter ‘I went to Martha’s house, but I never slept with her, we talked together the two of us’. This could turn in to the headline “Bob admits to visiting lonely Martha at her house”. The headline spices up the story and suggests an indiscretion.

    Third, different newspapers have a different bias in terms of political and even moral position, they are serving their constituency. I don’t think even that’s quite the issue either. I think it is true to say that every human bring brings some bias to a story, and as readers or consumers of the media we exepct that, and even want it.

    Fourth, where do non-media types get their impressions of journalists and editors? My guess is that many people believe that journalists, especially from the big newspapers, are a bit like Rita Skeeter from the Harry Potter series, and editors are all like J Jonah Jameson from spiderman. It doesn’t help the public perception of media people, but whether it is unfair or justified is a matter of opinion.

    Finally, on a personal note, I want to protect the church community I oversee, and my family, from the media. I run a small community church, sometimes go out on the Streets and offer to pray for people, in my job people tell me stuff in confidence. The fact is that a journalist who wanted to rubbish us as ‘weird Christian cult’ or ‘bible bashers’ would be able to easily, very easily. Or if a journalist went undercover into our church they could glean information about peoples private lives and publish it as sensationalist gossip. For these reasons alone I would be very wary of interviews with journalists.

    Here is one example of what I have been talking about You can think of this as a case study. Here is an example from ‘The Sun’ a UK national newspaper, I think it the circulation is 3-4m copies. These are from a copy I bought today, 21st January.

    Here’s a link to the first story:,,2-2006030476,,00.html

    The headline is: “Brothels Minister’s hookers”.

    If you look at the headline, I would suggest that this implies that the government has a Minister for Brothels, and the story is about some hookers who were working for this minister.

    But the facts are that there was a brothel running in an apartment block where this government minister happened to live. She had no knowledge of the brothel. It was closed by the police in 2004. The government minister in question is introducing legislation connected to the vice trade in the UK.

    The story has been skewed to suggest something that is not true. I would suggest that this sort of thing happens so often, certainly in the UK, that people don’t notice it. But they don’t trust journalists because they know it happens.

    I will try to add some more soon if i get the chance. Thanks

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Part of the reason the media gets things wrong so many times is the determination to not let its “victims” have a say in what is being reported or quoted. There seems to be a certain pride or code in the media that says it is somehow unethical to get feedback from people in their stories (even if there is plenty of deadline time to do so)once an interview or event is over or the story is written but not published yet.
    Back in the wild and wooly late 1960′s and early 1970′s I was involved in local politics and served a two-year term as a city councilor in Lynn, Mass. (only a few miles from Boston). Some real hot issues were on our city’s plate then (Rent Control, Urban Renewal, halting superhighways, the war in VietNam, stc.) Our city got so hot it attracted the major Boston media repeatedly, as well as the local media. Frequently days later we councilors (on both sides of issues) would agree–the reporters had covered us from Mars or (since we did know they were there) had put on blindfolds and earplugs so as to not get anything right. Our constant comments to each other were: “Were these guys at the same meeting we were at???”
    Yet no reporter EVER checked with any of us if they had gotten complicated info or quotes correct, either right after meetings or on the phone as they were writing their stories. Such an attitude by all those media personnel convinced us –of all polititical views– that huge numbers of reporters consider themselves infallible or that accuracy is not one of their values.

  • Maureen

    I will say, though, that most people have great respect for reporters who actually do go out there, look around, ask questions, do research, and find things out. Michael Yon, for instance.

    One of the great moments for the media in our town was at the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis, when one of the reporters and one of the radio show hosts at WHIO radio decided (as part of a regular segment where the radio guy tried to talk to people living in areas where news was going on) to try to call the US embassy in Tehran and find out what was going on. After some ado, they actually did managed to get hold of a hostage taker and get some actual info out of him.

    This was immensely impressive to most of us, both for the chutzpah of the call, and the faith shown by management in permitting the guy to spend so much money on an international long distance phone call that lasted so long. (I remember my mother shaking her head about how it must be costing a fortune….) And of course, it was good to know something about what was going on, especially when the big city newsmen couldn’t find out a thing. Heh.
    They played the tape on the CBS Evening News that night. (Note how the hostage taker is identified on the summary as a TERRORIST. Now that was the good old days.)
    A brief memoir of the event.

  • tmatt

    I always tell my students to take notes and use a tape recorder at the same time, if at all possible. I wish — frankly — that there were more effective ways (technically and legally) to tape record telephone interviews, since that is how I do must of my work.

    I also tell my students that the more controversial the story, the more they want to work off a DOCUMENT if they possibly can. Press for written materials and verify them.

    One more thing: If I am going into an interview that I think might, in any way, be hostile, I urge the person I am interviewing to tape the interview, too. That way they know that I know that they know what was said on both sides.

    That said, I do not think I have ever met a journalist that I felt deliberately twisted words. I have met many who did not seem anxious to hear people with points of few that clashed with their own. One of the highest compliments a reporter can receive is when they interview people on both sides of a bitterly divided issue and people on both sides say that the reporter quoted them accurately.

    Here’s what I tell my students: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

  • Jason Kranzusch

    From my limited observations it appears that TV media are more likely to misrepresent the people or events that they are covering.

    1. Does my observation jibe with the experience of others?

    2. If so, is this due to the nature of TV vs. print media, TV reporters having less time to research stories and present them on air?

  • andy chamberlain


    I completely believe what you have said here, in terms of the details and the spirit of how you are trying to practice your profession, and how you are trying to encourage others to do so.

    Sadly, I think this is miles from where some other journalists are. Again as an outsider I tend to think that I would only need to open a newspaper, or study a few web based stories to find a journalist who had twisted a story into something that it wasn’t. It is more difficult to spot a story where the interviewees words are twisted because, as consumers of the media, we only get to read or see what the journalist presents us with.

    However…I share Maureen’s optimism that this is a solvable problem. From the posts I have seen here, and from Dan’s previous post about the Catholic church that started all this off, I would like to suggest some reconciliation:

    – The ‘media’ team should recognise that there is a widespread perception that journalists and other media producers manipulate the content of stories and the words of interviewees to heighten the intrigue and shock value of a story, and in at least some cases this perception has its basis in objective fact.

    – The ‘cynical consumer’ team (where I am at I guess through I hate the label) should recognise that there are many journalists with both courage and integrity who are trying to engage in their profession with dignity and a genuine desire to achieve the reported truth.

    Furthermore, I think TMatt and others should be presenting nothing less than a vision (I can think of no better word) of how to do excellent journalism to their peers and students, and we should all support them in seeing that vision prevail across the media professions.

    To paraphrase St Paul: now we see through a glass darkly; but one day the press will get religion and religion will get the press!


  • Molly

    Has anyone been following the Washington Post flap with its obmudsman, Deborah Howell? Google those words and read the articles that come up for a blog perspective on traditional reporting.

    I think there is a Woodward/Bernstein effect going on in print journalism. I’ve mentioned before that what they did with Watergate raised them to a super-rock star level to which later journalists aspired much to the detriment of the profession. Nowadays, I think the public has finally picked up on that “cowboy gonzo journalist” attitude and reads newspapers with its skepticism lens firmly in place.

    As for TV journalism, Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera anyone? It’s total infotainment and useless except for weather reports and sports wrapups.

  • Molly

    Or, try this flap for an example of journalism getting a black eye.