CNN’s coverage of the popular uprisings in Egypt and other countries has brought to the forefront once again the question: If reporters know that official statements or press releases do not reflect what is happening on the ground, should they report it without comment? Should they ignore it, or should they report it with a commentary highlighting the lack of veracity, in brief, that the official statement is wrong, if not an outright lie?
Traditionally, newsroom ethics draw a sharp line between editorial opinions and news reporting.
Most practitioners in the media now acknowledge that the basis of all reporting implies a point of view, and that objectivity — as such — is beyond human capability. Media simply cannot ever know everything about any situation; but, this limitation does not condone the introduction of the personal views of reporters or editors, whether in agreement or not, with an official position.
This is not considering points of view. It is focusing on physical happenings, on specific deeds, on activities the reporter has observed, which contradict the official version.
It is my view that it is the ethical responsibility of the reporter to point this out so readers, listeners or viewers will not be misled. Indeed, ignoring that obligation aligns reporters with the misleading statements of the officialdom they are supposed to cover.
CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper was criticized for using the word “lie” when reporting st
atements by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s head Muammar Gaddafi. The Huffington Post quoted Fox news commentator Liz Trotta, who called Cooper’s coverage “really shocking” and accused him of having “no modesty.”
She is further quoted, “Any correspondent worth his salt knows that you shouldn’t be making editorial comments,” adding, “. . . though they may be lies and probably were, it’s not in his (Cooper’s) purview to say so.”
Most reporters are intelligent and learned in their area of coverage. The policy Trotta recommends was responsible for leading this country into war with Iraq and causing thousands of casualties.James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times was also critical, but largely because Cooper used the words “lies” and “lying” too often. Rainey’s comment: “How refreshing it would be to see that same piercing candor directed at American politicians when they overtly lie.
The burden falls on reporters and editors to determine, first, whether a statement or release represents a point of view or a political position. If so, it should be reported without comment. However, if that official pronouncement describes a verifiable situation that distorts or contradicts observable evidence, then reporters must inform their audience of what they know is accurate. Anderson Cooper deserves our collective thanks.
Charles L. Klotzer is the founder and editor/publisher emeritus of St. Louis Journalism Review.