Fighting Fake News with an Oath
Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath when they leave medical school. What if journalists did the same?
Who is a journalist? Not so many years ago that was a fairly easy to answer question. Journalists were people who worked for the limited number of media outlets available in print, TV and Radio and had either been trained in the standards of journalism or adhered to those principles.
Now everyone is a citizen journalist. From our Facebook and Twitter posts to personal blogs, anyone can publish anytime anywhere.
Edward R. Murrow, who is remembered for his epic takedown of Red Scare demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy saw the danger decades ago
“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”
What he saw in his era of radio and TV broadcasts has been multiplied by several orders of magnitude with the disinformation and blatant propaganda found on the emerging social media platforms that have displaced traditional newsrooms.
We saw this in the incredible Fake News sites, intentionally created in many cases by people intent on nothing more than creating click bait to generate profits for themselves, truth be damned.
There is growing pressure on social media platforms to finally accept that they are in fact publishers and must take responsibility for what appears in their medium. However those in favor of their own propaganda will fight hard to prevent such platforms from cracking down on their opinions masquerading as facts.
What if we would voluntarily hold ourselves to a higher standard?
For now, the only recourse for the news consumer is to try and “sort the wheat from he chaff”, but what if we as media creators would voluntarily hold ourselves to a higher standard and in turn increase our credibility with our audiences?
All of us, professional journalists and citizen journalists alike could claim our allegiance to the qualities of fairness, accuracy and objectivity that the best journalism aspires to.
Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath when they leave medical school, what if we had a Journalist’s Oath?
Ideally, it would provide the same moral force that the Hippocratic Oath does for patients who know their doctors have vowed “first, do no harm.”
The shape of such an “oath” is something I’ve thought about for several years and I’ve come to a number of conclusions.
Most news organizations already have codes of ethics, editorial policies and style guides to determine how the news should be written or presented. An oath couldn’t encompass all of those factors and would have to be adjusted for every news organization and medium (radio, TV, print, online). It’s best then to let individual news organizations and academic institutions grapple with the details to determine best practices, editorial decision making policies and ethical positions for given challenges.
The use of the term “oath” may not be the most appropriate either. It implies a pact with God or some supernatural force. Obviously, that could be offensive to both people of faith and nonbelievers alike.
Instead of an oath I propose a compact, “an agreement between equals”.
The oath could give journalists a sense of common purpose
The Media Compact wouldn’t be administered by some organization, rather it would be akin to crowdsourcing where individuals come together to accomplish a goal, in this case to abide by the agreement to serve their audience “in concord with all journalists of goodwill and integrity”.
People or organizations adhering to this Media Compact would instead state that they are abiding by this pact, perhaps placing a symbol or statement on their media platform.
If the idea was widely adopted, it could give working journalists a sense of common purpose and connection, while providing citizen journalists a set of values to rally around and hopefully give greater credibility to their work.
The public would also have a set of values to help them judge the news they’re consuming and to hold journalists of all stripes to a higher standard.
So, here’s my thought experiment for a Media Compact:
“I __________ In obedience to the dictates of my own conscience vow to serve the public with news and information as free of bias and distortion as is within my skill to execute.
I will strive to bring balance, depth and perspective to the work I offer, so it may enlighten and inform.
I will at all times remain mindful of the distinction between opinion and journalism and make it clear which voice I am speaking in.
I will honor the public trust by refusing to use my journalist voice to advance the propaganda of governments, organizations or advertisers.
I will protect the secrecy of my confidential sources to ensure the public’s right to know is not thwarted by conspiracies of silence.
I vow not to libelously harm another person’s character, reputation or legacy.
I affirm my commitment to this noble public trust in concord with all journalists of goodwill and integrity, for the betterment of the communities that I serve.”
Several journalists and institutions have previously proposed an oath
I’m by no means the first person to propose a journalist’s oath.
In 1914, Walter Williams created the Journalist’s Creed. He founded the world’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri, and later served as the university’s president.
Watch Dog City acts as a broker for the work of professional journalists with “a press corps loyal to you, not to big media conglomerates, Wall Street investors or political parties”. They require their contributors to agree to their Journalist’s Oath.
For Citizen Journalists, the Constitutional First Amendment Press Association created it’s own Constitutional Journalist’s Pledge. Citizen journalists who are willing to take the pledge are given credentials by the organization to help them prove that they are working as journalists. A right of access normally limited to professional journalists working for known media organizations.
In whatever form these and other oaths, pledges or compacts take the idea is simple enough, to remind anyone doing journalism and their audiences, that they are providing a vital function for democracy, by holding those in power to account for their actions and for people to be informed with the facts about the world around them.
As we engage in the work of journalism or public commentary, another reminder to remain humble: “Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.” Edward R. Murrow.