- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Many analysts have decried Rolling Stone magazine’s malfeasance about a University of Virginia rape claim, but much of the media have not recognized that this failure of journalistic ethics is far from rare.

Buried in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s report on the editorial meltdown is a paragraph about what’s called “confirmation bias.”

The report notes: “The problem of confirmation bias — the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones — is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here.”

In journalistic parlance, confirmation bias translates into not letting the facts stand in the way of a good story, which has been an ongoing problem that will not be corrected until news organizations deal with it and a variety of other ethical issues.

I have researched the traditional notions of journalistic ethics — objectivity, fairness, balance, neutrality, nonpartisanship and a host of other phrases that editors and reporters have difficulty defining.

What I have found is that almost everyone has found that objectivity — basically a scientific term — is virtually impossible for journalists to achieve. “Show me a man who thinks he’s objective,” Time founder Henry Luce said decades ago, “and I’ll show you a man who’s deceiving himself.”

Fairness and balance fall into much the same category. Both terms have different meanings for different people. Moreover, the journalistic tenet of providing both sides of a story — a frequent definition for both terms — fails to recognize that many opinions often exist rather than just two.

News outlets must emphasize what I consider two of the most important tenets of journalistic ethics: accuracy and transparency.

Some recent examples fail the accuracy test — one that nearly all journalists subscribe to. You know the headline grabbers: Brian Williams, Lara Logan, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and many more, such as Ferguson, Missouri.

But a recent media tsunami about Memories Pizza in a small town near South Bend, Indiana, is indicative of the mentality of many journalists. The owners of the business have a sign that reads, “Every day before we open the store, we gather to pray together.” A box exists for any prayer requests from the community.

An ABC affiliate found the perfect target for anti-gay material, which went viral. One of the family owners said she serves gays, but she would not cater a gay wedding. As it so happens, the restaurant has never been asked to provide pizza for a wedding, but the national media had their target. Again, the facts didn’t stand in the way of a good story.

Transparency is a critical component in news coverage. But transparency goes far beyond telling readers and viewers about how a story was reported. I think transparency also involves telling the public the political biases of journalists.

The media demand health records and income statements from politicians. Perhaps it would be wise for journalists and media companies to provide the same type of detail. The income statements — like those for politicians — could be redacted for sensitive personal information, but journalists need to give more information to the public about who they are, what they think and how much money they receive from speaking engagements.

Media companies need to break out details about specific advertisers and revenues, money spent on journalistic endeavors and profits or losses from news programming.

The Rolling Stone debacle provides an opportunity to recreate a connection between the press and the public — not simply to dwell on one malicious article.

Christopher Harper is a longtime reporter who teaches journalism at Temple University. He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com and followed on Twitter @charper51.

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