Opinion: ‘Journalists are literally responsible for filling the minds of a society’

Clark County Today Administrator Heidi Wetzler discusses the performance of the journalism industry today

“There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.’’

– Walter Lippman, American writer
Heidi Wetzler
Heidi Wetzler

Many professions are governed by a code of ethics. These codes are adopted by organizations to assist members in understanding the difference between right and wrong and in applying that understanding to their decisions. There are also avenues for legal action for the victims of those wronged by members of certain professions, as defined by the industry-acknowledged ethical codes.

Healthcare is one such notable profession. A good physician adheres to a commonly understood set of standards. The modern version of The Hippocratic Oath is inspiring. The full document can be found here. Each phrase has been crafted thoughtfully and together they contribute to a body of ideas that is vital for the safe practice of medicine. Of course, the profession is only as trustworthy as the individual health care providers that choose to adhere to these words to the best of their ability. One phrase that stood out to me is the requisite respect for the “Hard won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk …” This sentiment promotes the idea of honoring those that have practiced medicine before you by striving to achieve their standard, or hopefully raising the bar.

Financial advisors, lawyers, counselors and many other professions are bound by a set of ethics for the protection of their clients. In my opinion, the journalism field is a profession that has lost its way in this critical objective of protecting its clients — the consumers of news — and desperately needs to return to a commonly held ethical standard. In 1914, The Journalist’s Creed was written by the first dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, Walter Williams. The full body of the Creed can be found here. The first line states, “I believe in the profession of journalism.” As many know, I have worked in the journalism field my entire life. I desperately want to believe in the profession of journalism.  But today I do not even recognize most of its members as adherents to any sort of ethical code whatsoever. The Creed also states that “accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism” and “… that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.”  

For years going on decades, our most available news outlets are actually heading in the opposite direction by providing a criminal disservice to their viewers. There is only one truth. And if every channel is reporting something different as truth, then we have a crippling problem. Journalists are literally responsible for filling the minds of a society. That is a tremendous responsibility. And we are living the grave consequences of its failure. In the utopia in my head, the industry would be legally bound by a code of ethics, such as the Journalist’s Creed, and there could be a path to salvaging this crucial need in our country.

“Get the truth and print it.’’

–  John S. Knight, editor and publisher

I believe the measuring stick of public service begins with how well a news organization deals in facts – straight up, indisputable, unbiased, truth-based facts. Today it is easy, and lazy, and devious for journalists to first decide the way they want the story to be received, and then cherry pick the “facts” that support their end goal. It isn’t journalism. It is an agenda. And it is a stain on all of those true journalists that came before us.

“Journalists should be watchdogs, not lap dogs.’’

– Newton Lee, computer scientist and author

The Creed goes on to say that the journalism which succeeds the best is “stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power …” This ideal deserves a moment of silence and to be repeated for emphasis.  UNMOVED BY PRIDE OF OPINION. Is there anyone reading this who can honestly report that their favored news organization is unopinionated?  Well that my friends, is the standard set generations ago. That is the goal. And the players in this entire industry should be absolutely ashamed. A free press is paramount to a free society.  Unless you find yourself on an opinion page (such as the piece you are presently reading), a journalist should never tell you how to think. Most headlines and stories are so routinely filled with opinion that the reader is becoming immune. 

Opening up my computer to a headline of the day easily proves my point. Many news outlets are calling the audit currently happening in Arizona a “GOP fraud fantasy.”  If that news organization had even a modicum of integrity, this sort of headline would never make it past the editor. But that is not the world we live in today. This fact absolutely ruins me. The industry that I love and have been so proud to be a part of is failing. It provides little worthy public service. In my opinion, the media is the sole reason our country is irrevocably divided today.  Certain subjects are sensationalized. Others are ignored. The pot is continually stirred for ratings and the true purpose of the industry is gone. And the worst thing is, so many citizens are unaware, or just don’t care. For the record, the news source from which this is being written, is driven to uphold the dire responsibility of reporting the truth to the best of our ability.

Can you imagine if we had an independent review board for the journalism industry responsible for holding the actors accountable to the truth?  And those that fell short were removed from their duties? The victims of its crimes would regain their sight. The massive impact would transform this country in a year. 

The Creed goes on to suggest that journalism “is constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid … is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance … is profoundly patriotic …”  

Today, our 24-hour news cycle is largely about instant gratification. Being first to break a story is often more important than being right about the details. Brian Sicknick, the police officer who died at the Capitol protests on Jan. 6 was widely reported to have been struck by a fire extinguisher and that caused his death. Since then, it has been revealed that he actually had two strokes and died of natural causes, not blunt force trauma. But patiently waiting for the truth, doesn’t fan the flames. And now that the wrong story has been portrayed it is impossible to correct the damage done.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is putting its shoes on.’’

– Mark Twain

The influence the media has on society today is monumental.  Greater than at any time before.  A phrase in the Hippocratic Oath urges to “avoid the trap of therapeutic nihilism.” In the medical realm, this suggests that the cure should not do more harm than good.  This is squarely the space that the mainstream media occupies today. Doing more harm than good.  Just look around at the society it has created. While many are busy pointing fingers at all of the reasons our country is falling apart – we actually need to look no further than the talking heads from our living rooms.

“Make the lie big, keep it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.’’

– Adolf Hitler
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