The Canons of Journalism: Presenting the ‘Truth’ or Violating the Ethical Norms?
Providing explicit frameworks of explanation, as well tacit understandings based on associations of ideas, evoking images, shaping the natural chains of thought – these are the principal characteristics of the mass media. The preservation of democratic values and commitment to fairness, however, are slowly vanishing from our comprehension about journalism. The cause of this phenomenon can be referred to the abundance of unreliable news sources and the absence of ethical norms. What is the future of journalism and how powerful the media is nowadays? Professor of journalism’s master, Jeroen Smit, agreed to give Checks&Balances the answers.
‘The central assignment of a journalist is to search for the truth. By providing reliable information, a journalist helps a society to organize itself in a better way. The answers to questions, such as ‘Which person or which party I am going to vote for? Where am I going to invest my money?’ are often being shaped by the journalists, since communities are in need of a constant system of ‘checks and balances’ which would prevent corruption’ – said Smit when I first asked him about the general role of journalism and what one should do before deciding to become a representative of its sphere. ‘In my opinion, powerful people, for instance a mayor of a certain city, should receive a phone call from a critical journalist at least once a day. Influential actors should be checked whether they are truly doing the things they promised to do. The mayor has to be inspected. Thus, if one aspires to become a journalist, he or she needs to be sincerely sure about this decision. Know that you will have to make the dominant people tremble. A good doctor takes care of the physical health of the people. You, as a good journalist, would have to take care of the health of the society. Ask yourself, if you certainly want to do this’.
Independency is the main currency of journalism, its main value.
When asked about canons of journalism, Smit gave the following answer: ‘In order to present the readers with trustworthy information and assist them when making relevant decisions, a journalist needs to be independent. Being independent means not being bought. If one buys a newspaper, spends money on it, he or she inevitably wants to be sure that the journalist who wrote the articles is being paid not by some sort of political party, but by the paper itself. Hence, independency is the main currency of journalism, its main value’.
‘In fact, in the Netherlands the old titles are still in a reasonable shape. Newspapers, such as the Volkskrant or the Telegraaf have a quality status. Their editorial staff consists of specialists who are constantly checking the work of each other, thus making sure that the quality and independence are being preserved’.
Professor as well recognized the importance of ethics: ‘Journalists should never capitalize on the feelings of their story subjects. On the other hand, if someone does not want to cooperate, it does not necessarily mean that one should not write a story when the issue is very important. Imagine, you hear a rumor that the Dutch minister of foreign affairs wants to ban products from a certain country for whatever reason. You call the minister and then he declines comment. Obviously, that’s not good enough.You have to do everything you can to find the truth. Thus, it depends on the topic, on the importance of the topic and on your personal ethics. You have to put yourself into the position of the other. The minister of foreign affairs does not want to speak to you, but he totally respects you as a journalist’.
Smit also acknowledged the fact that today the profusion of false news is evident: ‘Nowadays the fast journalism, in other words, the internet negates the very notion of the ‘deadline’. When I first started writing for a newspaper back in 1990, there were few, very simple rules under which the quality of journalism was maintained. If somebody decided to write about something completely new, he or she then needed to find at least two independent sources which substantiated their story. Due to the rise of the internet, these kinds of rules have evaporated. Today the journalists seek to win in terms of time. They wish to be first when bringing a story for the public opinion and if the article turns out to be false, they immediately create another story. Thus to some extent, the internet is a threat to journalism. But it is also an opportunity. The internet changed the story-telling process. By integrating videos, images and text, today the online dimensions provide the journalists with more interesting ways to tell a story. I am an optimist. Working in the skills department, made me realize that the new generation of journalists seeks for new opportunities. I can see that with our students, who are the best educated journalists in the country, the quality of the online news sources can be heightened’.
The very best journalists finish their studies first – whatever their studies are – then they go and work for one, two or three years, and then at the age of 25 or 26 they decide whether they truly aspire to enter journalism.
International Master of Journalism offered in Groningen seems to attract more and more students. When requested to describe the degree, Smit did not hesitate: ‘What we do here in Groningen is something different. Before you are allowed to apply for the journalism master’s programme, which lasts a year and a half, you first have to finish your bachelor, which makes you a specialist of a certain sphere. My personal opinion is, that the very best journalists finish their studies first – whatever their studies are – then they go and work for one, two or three years, and then at the age of 25 or 26 they decide whether they truly aspire to enter journalism’.
‘You learn two things in the master programme. Half of the time you study journalism itself, which is very interesting, since you get the chance to understand the importance of journalism and the role that it had played through centuries. Furthermore, you are being taught how to do journalism. Students learn simple things, such as how to write an article, but also how important it is to follow news, to be involved in them’.
Thus overall it was concluded that the professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Smit summarized the interview with the subsequent thoughts: ‘I have a very simply philosophy about journalism. I think that a good story has the following characteristics: it has to be reliable, as we discussed before, independent, it also has to be a good story, which is easy to read. You have to be unique in story-telling, so that your article would be read from the beginning till the very end. If you are a specialist, you gather information, you put everything in one peace and then you have the capacity to decide what is truly important. If you don’t have the necessary knowledge, then you worry a lot and you can’t decide what is relevant and what needs to be left out. The reader then sees your doubt. Thus to find the optimum between reliability and accessibility is what a true journalist knows how to do’.
Jeroen Smit studied business administration at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. He started his career as a journalist in 1990 by joining the Financieele Dagblad. Throughout the years, Smit wrote for Algemeen Dagblad, tought journalism at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and was the editor-in-chief of the Elsevier Bedrijsinformatie. At the moment, Smit teaches journalism master at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.