High fidelity

One of the best things about my job as a newspaper editor and opinion writer is the opportunity, several times a year, to talk shop with journalism or communication arts students or with professionals interested in the theory and practice of journalism.

I usually come prepared with a simple PowerPoint presentation or with notes written in my trusty (Korean-made) reporter’s notebook or on my Office-capable cellphone. When professor Bruce Banaag of De La Salle Lipa invited me to speak on “Ethics and News Reporting” at his school’s Annual Media Forum, however, it occured to me that reducing my thoughts to writing may be worth a try. (I have also been reading colleague Conrad de Quiros’s latest book, Tongues on Fire, a compilation of the speeches he had given over the years.)

At any rate, I went out and wrote something down. I’m glad I did, because the audience in Lipa (the three-hour forum took place yesterday) was rousing and most receptive. With the exception of the introduction (the portion in italics, which I largely skipped), what follows is the speech as I read it. What followed after the reading was gratifying: a steady stream of pertinent, probing questions. We had to cut if off after over an hour, and only because it was time to vacate the hall.

High fidelity
“Ethics and News Reporting.” De La Salle Lipa Annual Media Forum.
28 September 2007

Does anyone here still remember the original concept of “high fidelity”? In the age of the iPod and Wi-Fi, the idea that long-playing records or FM radio were once the latest word in audio technology is positively quaint. (Wait. Do you even know what long-playing records are?)

My favorite dictionary, the New Oxford American, defines “high fidelity” as “the reproduction of sound with little distortion, giving a result very similar to the original.” Today, high-fidelity audio is almost a given, something we take for granted. The smallest MP3 player, for instance, can offer the reproduced sound of, say, Fall Out Boy or The Click 5 that is very similar, indeed, to the original.

In the 1950s, however, at around the time Ramon Magsaysay was President and jumping over ditches, “the reproduction of sound with little distortion” was still a novelty. “High fidelity” sound was state of the art, top of the charts.

Through the years, the phrase retained its curious power—-in part because it conveyed the impression of something both precise and evocative (rather like the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins, but that is altogether a different story, for a different forum); and in part because the measure of “high” could always be defined upwards, to keep pace with technology. Today, “high fidelity” remains one definition of the standard in audio.

Fine. Thanks for the music history lesson. But what has all this got to do with “Ethics and News Reporting”?

Bear with me.

When I reflect on my experience as a journalist, I am led to conclude that fidelity lies at the very heart of the ethical practice of journalism. Journalists are tasked to be faithful to certain ideals or principles or methods; we are ethical only in so far as we are faithful. We can say then that “high fidelity” is one definition of the highest standard in journalism.

I realize that, just by looking closely at their roots, we can readily intuit that “fidelity” and “ethics” are related. Fidelity means faithfulness, allegiance, constancy. Ethics, of course, is the study of moral choices, the science of right and wrong. The two words, the two ideas, must be kissing cousins.

For our purposes today, however, I think it’s best if we start with the second meaning of “fidelity”—-and only then move our way up (or down) to the first sense, the meaning that is bound with morality.

“Fidelity” also means (the New Oxford American again) “the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.” Its synonyms are a variation on the theme of correspondence: “accuracy, exactness, precision, preciseness, correctness, strictness, closeness, faithfulness, authenticity.”

FIDELITY TO THE SITUATION

It is in this second sense that the first task of a journalist must be understood. The journalist must exercise fidelity to the news event.

An event can be documented in different ways. A man contemplating suicide from the top of a billboard on the South Luzon Expressway, while the Friday traffic grinds to a bewildered halt, can be the subject of a short story, a press release, a diary entry, and so on. Of course, he could also be the subject of a news story.

Each form can offer its take on the truth of the situation, but what distinguishes the news story from all others is the news writer’s method (perhaps, for an inexperienced reporter, still more madness than method) of checking the facts.

As Kovach and Rosenstiel summed it up for all time: “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.”

It is this discipline that journalists refer to when they talk of objectivity. As I never tire of pointing out when I conduct journalism workshops or speak in journalism forums, “objectivity is dead.” By this I mean that the popular meaning of objectivity in journalism, that journalists leave their biases and personal preferences behind before joining a “press con” or entering a news room, is dead wrong, and deserves a hasty burial.

When journalists talk about objectivity, they mean the method they use, not the ideal and unattainable neutrality that is wrongly expected of them. Let’s say that again: Objectivity does not refer to the journalist, who is naturally biased—-fraught with background, as Auerbach might say, or loaded down with baggage, as we might mumble—-but to the method used by the journalist.

Kovach and Rosenstiel suggest five core principles of the objective method. Not able to let well enough alone, I have tightened their phrasing and rearranged the sequence a bit, as follows:

1 Do not add
2 Do not deceive
3 Do your own work
4 Be transparent
5 Be humble

These, to quote from The Elements of Journalism again, “are the intellectual principles of a science of reporting.”

These principles help make it possible for journalists to be faithful to the situation, and thus to be ethically responsible.

FIDELITY TO THE LANGUAGE

The second task of a journalist, like the first, relies on an understanding of fidelity as precision in reproduction, but it also suggests fidelity as constancy in devotion, as commitment. The journalist must exercise fidelity to the language of news.

Journalism—-news reporting in particular—-involves the use of a special language. (Even though I have written or supervised the writing of Tagalog scripts for a TV newsmagazine, I will confine my remarks to “news English,” principally because most of my work is for an English-language newspaper.)

“News English” is not ordinary English, although of course it uses the same grammar, the same diction. “News English” is spare, pared down, frequently direct, even formulaic, and with a syntax all its own.

Consider a headline that reads: “BSP hikes interest rates.” Consider a lead that begins: “The country’s central bank yesterday raised overnight interest rates by 12 percentage points.” Consider a caption for a table that states: “Overnight rates are now 25 percent higher than year-ago figures.”

“Hike” as a verb. “Yesterday” as an awkwardly placed adverb of time. “Year-ago” as handy code of comparison, often used in the business pages. These are practices not often seen in other versions of English. But they are a staple in “news English” because they save space (cf. the headline), because they save time (cf. the lead, which conveys the timeliness of the news as immediately as possible), and not least because they save labor (cf. the table caption).

Vergel Santos, in The Newswriting Formula, made a useful distinction between the visual story and the verbal story. (Now that’s another topic, for another workshop.) They require different approaches, but they both use the same kind of utilitarian language that marks “news English.”

A rookie journalist has no excuse for not learning the language; a veteran has no excuse for not mastering it.

Once a journalist “gets” the news, she must turn it into a solid story, sound and substantial, using this language.

1 Get the (essential) facts in
2 Get the shape of the story right
3 Get the reader on board

Journalism is a craft; fidelity to the tenets and techniques of that craft—-sheer craftsmanship, in short—-is also a journalist’s ethical responsibility.

FIDELITY TO CONSCIENCE

The third task involves what many may think is the true province of the ethics of news reporting. (Finally! Some of you may be thinking.) It depends on a moral understanding of faithfulness: The journalist must exercise fidelity to conscience—-her own, and that of the community.

I expect most of the questions you will ask in the open forum will involve ethical questions understood in this sense: questions about the right to privacy, about the treatment of suspects and alleged victims, about payola and so-called ATM journalism, about libel and plagiarism, about the uses and limits of anonymous sourcing, about deception by media organizations and manipulation of the news process by political or corporate interests.

I look forward to your questions, in part because the Q&A is often the highlight of any forum (it will be a relief to stop talking and to start listening); and in part because your questions will be a good gauge of your aptitude for journalism.

As a conceptual framework, we can follow the three stages of moral reasoning outlined by Carole Rich in her popular journalism textbook:

1 Define the dilemma
2 Examine all alternatives
3 Justify the decision

I hesitate to generalize about the questions you will ask, but let me take a risk and predict that most of my answers will revolve around two ideas, summed up in the following quick quotes:

I am leery of quoting dead white males, especially dour and dogmatic dead white males, but Walter Lippmann, writing in 1920 (at about the time Manuel L. Quezon wrested political leadership from Sergio Osmena), got something so dead right it is worth repeating. “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”

On the other hand, Kovach and Rosenstiel are very much alive, so I have no qualms quoting them (again). They remind us, toward the close of The Elements of Journalism, of an elemental truth: “In the end journalism is an act of character.”

2 Comments

Filed under Readings in Media, Speeches & Workshops

2 responses to “High fidelity

  1. Sir John,

    Great speech. I wish I was there when you delivered it. Its very timely especially because journalism continues to be plagued by practices that lead to public distrust. Some journalism students also have a misconception about the profession that its a glamorous job and a way to get rich that they tend to overlook this intrinsic principle of fidelity and of course, loyalty to citizens.

    Everytime I slide off track or face a dilemma, there’s always Kovach and Rosenstiel to provide these reminders.

    1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. 2. Its first loyalty is to citizens. 3. Its essence is a discipline of verification 4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover 5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power 6. It must proide a forum for public criticism and compromise 7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant 8. It must keep the news comprehensvive and proportional 9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

  2. Thanks, Ced! And thanks especially for listing the “elements” of journalism. I’ve wanted to do that for some time, but somehow never got around to it.

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