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'Explorer' Editor Confronts Ethics Issue Head-On

It's not the column that any editor or publisher wants to write, but at a time when the public's faith in the media continues to reach all-time lows, Walt Nett's recent print apology in the Explorer could be used as a model for collegiate ethics classes.

Nett was tipped off about a story by reporter Ali Vinci pertaining to pet accommodations at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. That sounds pretty tame, but it was how the story came about that led to her removal from the paper.

"The employee, who is no longer employed here, originally wrote it for a college journalism class and presented it as new material," Nett wrote in his editorial. "While the story received marginal updating, the staffer retained quotes from the original piece. The concierge quoted in the story no longer works at the resort. The story accurately reflected that another source for the original story is now working in a different department at the resort."

So what's the big deal? To Nett, it's the simplest of issues: trust.

"What happened to us, and to you, last week was a breach of trust on several levels--first in the relationship between a writer and the editors, then in the relationship between this newspaper and the readers who invite us into their homes every week," said Nett in the Explorer editorial. "And in the news business, trust isn't just earned once. Every week, we put our credibility on the line."

While it might appear on the surface that no harm was done, it's the way the story was produced that put the newspaper's credibility on the line. This is the type of breach that publishers and editors often take seriously.

"The reputation is there with every newspaper you put out and every story you publish," said Nett in a phone interview. "We all sit there and chuckle when we see badly written headlines or weird typos in stories, but there is an element in the public that's looking for us to get stuff wrong. We volunteer to be on the pedestal. We volunteer our reputation to try to get it right every time. I think that also is a factor in the way we have a problem with responsibility in the business.

"There are a growing number of folks out there who, for whatever reason, can't understand that a mistake can be a brain fart. You had a moment of brain lock. It happens to everyone. You forget someone's name in the middle of a conversation, for Pete's sake. It's part of humanity, but there's a section out there that believes every mistake is deliberate, whether it's misspelling a name or transposing a phone number."

The key is the line that separates making a human error from intentionally misleading the reader, and the sense of pride that may or may not enter that equation.

"I try to remember what I learned from my ethics class in 1973, and I guess we never got into the down and dirty of this stuff," said Nett, who has worked at the Arizona Daily Star, as a journalism instructor at the UA and as the Media Watch columnist for the Tucson Weekly, among other experiences in his three-plus decades in the industry. "We didn't talk about ethics as practice, or why ethics exist, and I wonder if there was a lot of other stuff about pride that went into it. ... It's that nagging question: Why is it there is never time to get it right the first time, but you can always find time to do it over? You see that in a lot of elements in society: 'Ah, well, I screwed that up. I'll just do it again.'"

If a journalist takes pride in his or her job, coming face to face with a mistake can be a frustrating occurrence. There it is: your bonehead screw-up, for all the world to see, and now you have to deal with it as the correction appears. From there, you have to learn from the mistake, take responsibility and do your best to prevent it from happening again.

This Media Watch column has mentioned the Arizona Daily Star's efforts to crack down on corrections, a problem that got so extreme that it forced management to implement a suspension policy that would hit repeat offenders in the wallet. That policy, coupled with an expanded database and a refresher course in fact-checking, has dramatically lowered the correction ratio at the Lee-owned publication.

That said, Nett believes a lack of local ownership in the industry is one of the reasons for the often laissez-faire approach to corrections by some reporters.

"One of the things I've liked working with local owners is there's more risk there," Nett said. "When it's all local, the reader, the end user in the story, has a lot of contact they don't have in bigger organizations. With all the technology and stuff, it's easier to hide behind voicemail and e-mail and all that good crap."

And maybe easier for the reporter to be a bit too flip about a foul-up.

"I've heard it said around the water cooler in newsrooms: 'Yeah, I got it wrong today, but we'll just run a correction tomorrow,'" Nett said. "Often times, the journalists who say that aren't old enough to remember the bit of wisdom Richard Nixon gave Joe McCarthy: If you're going to smack someone, you tell a big lie, and the newspaper will take the lie and put it out there on the front page, and they'll bury the correction two days later back with the deodorant ads. You have to be alert to the error. Did we make it, or did we get set up? Did we walk into it, or did we do this ourselves?"

Nett says that as long as he is on board at the Explorer, the paper will strive for accuracy in an effort to maintain trust with its circulation base.

As Nett said in his editorial: "It's a reputation that's endangered every time a reporter airily says, 'Why work yourself into a heart attack for something you sell for 50 cents?' Why indeed? The answer was on a sign on the newsroom wall at City News Service in Los Angeles. Amid all the hype of what journalists do, and why we do it, the sign in that West L.A. newsroom boils down every reporter's mission to eight simple words: 'Get it first, but first get it right.'"

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