Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Precisely

One of the things I liked best about working at the Los Angeles Times was the paper's thoughtful, thorough, and thoroughly enforced ethics policy. I believe that for all the handwringing we do in this industry about declining readership, competition from the Internet, the waning interest of the public, etc., newspapers often are their own worst enemy. At least, they don't do themselves any favors by appearing to be -- or being! -- biased, unfair, on the take, or even imprecise.

Sadly, not everyone I've worked with, especially outside the Times, has shared that concern. In fact, some of my morning news meeting diatribes on this very blog began as newsroom rants about hyperbolic writing, or getting too cozy with sources, or accepting freebies, or winning a writing "award" from an organization being covered.

The LAT has a new online section by its readers' representative, which will include discussions with reporters, editors and other staff members and a place for the readers' rep, Jamie Gold, to answer questions. But what caught my eye today was publication of the paper's full ethics guidelines. It's a terrific document that could be used as a model for other newsrooms.

Among my favorite sections is an entry on precision of writing. This isn't always considered an "ethical" issue, but as it gets to the writer's (and the paper's) credibility, the Times includes it here.

One short excerpt:

Superlatives such as “biggest,” “worst” and “most” should be employed only when the writer has proof. It is the responsibility of assigning editors and copy editors to challenge all questionable claims. The burden of proof rests with the writer; it is not the desk’s responsibility to prove the writer wrong.

It is unacceptable to hedge an unverified or unverifiable assertion with words such as “arguably” or “perhaps.” Our job is to tell readers what is true, not what might be.

That's what I'm talking about. Plenty of good reading throughout.

1 comment:

cat psychologist said...

Hear, Hear.