Gene Weingarten: Dos and don'ts for ethical journalists

WASHINGTON — As I write this, journalists across the country are spending hours a day on Twitter, answering an industry call to list the 100 things they should and should not be doing in their work. (I suggest they should be spending less time on Twitter.)

The responses have been heartening: hundreds of earnest assessments of what's wrong, and right, with the profession and how to make it better. The real shame is that this is mostly just being bounced back and forth among journalists; if the public knew how seriously we take our craft, it would be less likely to have such contempt for the mainstream media and suspicion of our ethics and motives. As a public service, I'm sharing my dos and don'ts here.

• When deliberately slanting stories in favor of liberal causes, always cover your tracks by quoting the other side. Example: "President Obama wants universal health care, whereas Rush Limbaugh, the big fat drug addict, contends it is a bad idea."

• Do not pistol-whip sources into talking to you. Sure, it worked for Woodward and Bernstein, but times have changed. Plying sources with liquor is still okay, but no quaaludes unless authorized in advance by your supervisor.

• Don't be an ingrate. When you absolutely have to steal snapshots of murder victims from grieving relatives' homes, leave a buck or two behind.

• If you spell enough words wrong, it's not plagiarism.

• When you make up quotes for nonexistent people, use names that are not easily checkable. Bad: "Phineas McFoosterstein, East Blacksburg, Va." Good: "Edward Johnson, America."

• If you have a famous dry witticism but can't find its source, attribute it to Dorothy Parker. Everyone else does.

• If you absolutely need to get someone to say something that you know he will never say, a good solution is to write what you want him to say on a piece of paper. Then tell him you've mislaid your glasses and can't read what's on the paper. When he reads it aloud for you, you've got the quote. Technically, he said it. Secretly record this moment in case he tries to deny it later.

• Photographers: Celebrities are human beings and have basic human rights. Do not invade their privacy unless you absolutely have to for journalistic purposes, such as when one of them is getting out of a low-slung car wearing a short skirt.

• Remember always that your word is your bond. "Off the record" means off the record, unless it's something you can use to embarrass a Republican.

• Keep busy; always be on the lookout for stories. One good method is to leaf through your newspaper to see which companies have bought big ads, then do sympathetic profiles of their chief executives.

• Remember, "Brevity is the soul of wit." — Dorothy Parker.

• Be careful with unattributed quotes. If, for example, you got a quote from a cabdriver, do not identify him as a "senior White House official" unless you know that he can't read English well enough to see it in the paper.

• Remember that good news is interesting, too. Don't harp only on war, crime, famine, joblessness, scandals and so forth. Throw in the occasional warm, spiritually uplifting tale about a mother's love for her child who was born without a head.

• Never, ever write directly about the mandatory class you took in journalism school in how to give aid and comfort to America's enemies at home and abroad, or the seminar in how to disrespect the memories of our fallen heroes. These classes are a fraternal secret, like Skull and Bones.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com.

Gene Weingarten: Dos and don'ts for ethical journalists 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 3:31am]

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