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Journalists need truth, not press releases and fancy sources

Thursday, September 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:13 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 18, 2009

Dear J-School students and other seekers of the truth:

I have been thinking about this letter for a while and decided now is the time you need to hear from a person who is not MU faculty. I may not be the best person to give you direction, but here it goes.

Your charge in school working with the Missourian, KBIA and KOMU, and after graduation is to seek the truth and tell the story better than other journalists. Yes, this takes a lot of practice. Every professional in every field seeks that unattainable perfection through practice, learning and seeking advice and critique. Life is making the best better.

Aristotle wrote that ethos — ethics — includes not only doing the right thing but also telling the truth and telling your story for the betterment of the community, whether local or international. As a journalist, reporter or commentator, the truth is something that is either easily discernible or hidden in the depths of murky waters.

The late Edward Kennedy said, “I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly on it?” Kennedy was talking of religion, but his statement holds true for everyone who is seeking the truth. Yet there is another problem with seeking “The Answer.”

William Faulkner, American author and Noble Prize winner in literature, said that sometimes “facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”  You will find this true in the health care debate, in reporting on wars or on a city council’s attempts to curb crime.

I strongly suggest that you pick up a copy of Bill Moyers' “Moyers on Democracy” and read it cover to cover. Yes, Moyers is a liberal, but he is also an honored journalist and documentary producer.  Then re-read Part 4, “The Media.” This will serve as a strong reminder that you, a professional in your field, are a vital part of the American system's checks and balances.

Moyers reminds the reader that as journalists and as Americans, we need to be wary of the information fed to us by “official sources,” government and corporate alike.  We need to listen with a critical ear, to ask questions and to seek answers when our gut tells us something is wrong.

Today, too many journalists are taking the government or corporate line without investigating, reprinting press releases with little, if any fact checking. A statement from a high-ranking official must be true because it comes from a high-ranking official. It is called argument by authority.

R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller said the best way to answer a difficult question is to believe your gut. Your head will add, delete or modify realities to make the facts fit the expected results, but your gut will not and cannot. Much like the “finagle factor,” adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing by any number to make the answer right. (I’ll give you the story of British marine Sergeant Major Chauncey Finagle another time.)

Moyers and Fuller came to the same conclusion, something we need to remember. We need to look beyond the surface to find the truth, even if it does not agree with our personal points of view.

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” tells us, journalists, warriors, business professionals and alike, that “Know your enemy as well as you know yourself and you will never fear to lose one-thousand battles.” As a journalist, scientist, manager or educator, you must know both sides of every issue, not just the surface, so you could argue either side with equal tenacity regardless of your personal stance, even in the limited space of a printed page.

Knowledge is power and truth is the fuel that propels democracies. Our founders knew that a well-informed public in a representative democracy would guide the United States to greatness.

Journalists have a special place in our Constitution and an important charge to the government and the people of this nation. Ten years from now, newspapers may cease to exist, replaced by the Internet and other technologies but you, as journalists and seekers, must continue to search for the truth. Take this charge seriously for you are indeed the Fourth Estate.

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. He welcomes your comments at ProfDave1011@netscape.net.

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