August 27, 2004

The Swift boat coverage reflects the heat-seeking political journalism that is so prevalent today. 

It contains all the elements we find in such stories:

  • Prominent political figure;

  •  Explosive allegations against the political figure’s integrity and credentials;

  •  Initially ignored, but fueled by politically-oriented websites and radio talk shows;

  •  Fed upon by journalists hungry for something to replace the temporary lull in attention-grabbing news from other places;

  •  Long on he said/he said claims and counter-claims;

  •  Short on context, and independent, journalistic investigation and verification.

With the Republican National Convention beginning next week, maybe we can learn from the Swift boat controversy that exploded following the Democratic National Convention.

Instead of addressing such controversies by simply seeking commentary from competing camps, journalists might consider asking questions that illuminate, rather than just ignite, an issue.

When the political accusations/allegations begin flying, here are some of questions journalists might use to increase the public’s understanding of what they mean:

  • Who’s making the accusation/allegation?

  • What’s their background?

  •  Why now?

  • To whom are they connected?

  •  Where does the accuser’s funding come from?

  • What bearing does the accusation, allegation have on the individual and that person’s ability to lead?

  • What can be verified by facts, documentation, and public records?

  •  What kind of information connects the dots, and frames the issue, so the public can make informed decision about what’s going on?

  •  And our classic ethical decision-making question: what do we know and what do we need to know?

I recognize that the increasing number of news outlets vying for public attention make competition a more constant pressure that’s hard to avoid. For some journalists, this seems to mean we should let everything slip in. We just collect, count and cast it out there for all to see.

Such an approach promises to devalue what we do and how we do it. If we want to ensure our credibility in the midst of the controversy, here are some things to remember:

  •  We still need standards, guiding principles and questions we can ask before we fling open our gate.

  • We must focus not only the specifics of what we learn, but what it means to our audiences.

  • We benefit when we differentiate stories that involve information the public needs immediately, such as news of an approaching hurricane, from stories that can be more usefully presented after more reporting.

  • We benefit from taking more time to study, evaluate and scrutinize the nuances and complexities common to other stories that are not as immediate, such as the Swift boat saga.

  • We work best when we offer not only facts but also frames that enhance the ability of readers and viewers to understand the information.

To play with a popular line, the race is not always to the swift but to those secure and sure of what they have to offer.

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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…
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