October 8, 2004

Can a journalist be too truthful?

How much should the public know about what a journalist personally believes about what she or he reports on professionally?

What are the boundaries for a journalist when it comes to professional and personal communications?

These questions and more arose when Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Baghdad, recently wrote the truth about Iraq as she saw it. It prompted some journalists to ask if doing so compromised her credibility. It caused others to wonder why Fassihi’s account, which they consider truthful, should adversely affect her credibility.

Her candid and compelling account appeared in a personal e-mail to her friends that became public without her permission. It included what she had observed, what facts she knew, what she didn’t know. 

She also added a few of her own personal opinions. That’s what raised questions for some journalists about how her reporting on Iraq might be viewed when it appeared from now on in the pages of the Wall Street Journal

A number them began asking if she had revealed too much about her own perspective. Others wondered why anyone would read her account as anything other than an accurate rendering of what has been going on in Iraq.

Two competing principles intersect here. One involves the mandate to report the truth as fully as possible. The other deals with journalistic independence, which includes avoiding anything that might damage your credibility. 

Fassihi definitely offered her unvarnished version of the truth when she told her friends about Iraq and the role the United States plays there. What some journalists are wondering is whether the opinions she included in her e-mail may make some readers question the fairness of her reporting about Iraq in the future.

I think it’s important to stipulate a few things. What Fassihi wrote was a personal note, not a news report. She sent it out to people who know her, not to those who don’t. And her opinions followed factual, and substantive information, drawn from thorough reporting, her extensive knowledge, and her firsthand experience.  Also, much of what she wrote has been documented by other journalists and observers.

This merits mentioning because it shows this was not a personal opinion piece masquerading as a news story. It also indicates that she was not trying to influence the news process with her views.

Yet, the question lingers for some: Now that her views have received such widespread exposure, will readers wonder about her impartiality?

One simple way to address that would be to take her off that beat. (As it happens, she will be on a planned vacation that will run past the election, which had nothing to do with the e-mail, according to The Journal).  By reassigning her, The Journal would keep the readers’ attention on the paper’s reporting, not on its reporter and her opinions.

But that’s not the only alternative.

The Journal could keep her on the beat, explaining to readers what happened, and why it believed Fassihi could continue her reporting from Iraq in the same professional and impartial manner she has been doing. (In fact, Paul Steiger, The Journal’s managing editor, did support Fassihi. He was quoted in the New York Post saying that Fassihi’s opinions didn’t adversely affect the fairness of her news reporting.)

Informing readers about how the newspaper works at protecting the integrity of its reporting may have helped address questions about Fassihi’s reporting. Sharing the journalistic process common to most newsrooms might help readers understand the steps news operations take to maintain their credibility.

The paper could explain that, unlike an e-mail sent directly from the writer to the reader, the reporting done by journalists such as Fassihi must make its way through a phalanx of editors. Those editors work with the reporter to ensure the coverage meets standards of fairness, completeness, and accuracy that reflect the professionalism they all bring to the news product.

Now let’s get back to the questions posed earlier.

Can a journalist be too truthful? Maybe the answer has to do not only with how much truth a journalist conveys, but how the journalist conveys it. Is it clear where the journalist is getting the information and how the reporting supports it? If there are questions regarding the credibility of the reporting, what disclosures or explanations are offered to address those questions?

How much should the public know about what a journalist personally believes about what she or he reports on professionally? What a reporter believes, or doesn’t believe, matters less than how the reporting is supported by relevant facts, observations, and the other voices included in the story. And the more the public understands about the process involved in gathering and reporting the story, the better position it will be in to evaluate how credible the reporting appears to them. And if a reporter’s personal views become known, the news organization needs to explain how, and what it does, to mitigate the appearance of bias and prejudice.

What are the boundaries that exist for a journalist when it comes to professional and personal communications? I don’t know. Tim Rutten raises that issue in a piece he did for the Los Angeles Times. Journalists need to remember that whatever they say privately may have public consequences. I don’t think that precludes journalists from having opinions. It just means they must remain alert to how those opinions may affect the way people view their reporting.  It benefits them to weigh the benefits, and disadvantages, of what they communicate personally.

Interestingly enough, some readers may have found Fassihi’s e-mail account even more credible than some mainstream reporting because it bears the marks of personal sincerity as opposed to a more formal and impersonal documentation found in many news reports.

Ultimately, the credibility we have as journalists may depend not on what we believe personally, but on how we act professionally. And how we act professionally needs to be explained in a way that helps the public understand how we bring them the best, and fairest, journalism we humanly can.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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