IT is a significant fact that public interest in newspaper ethics and the conduct of the press was never so widespread in this country as it is to-day. Before the war, people who discussed the subject concerned themselves primarily with the question whether the newspapers degraded public morals by their exploitation of divorce scandals and their general preoccupation with men’s misdeeds, and the quest ion whether large advertisers, and especially department stores, could bring about the suppression or distortion of news affecting their financial interests. The war, however, with its censorship, its development of the art of propaganda, and the improvement which it brought about in methods of swaying masses of men by controlling or doctoring the news, has made us realize that the problem of newspaper conduct is larger and more fundamental than we had supposed it to be. We now see that it is immensely important that the press shall give us the facts straight; and not merely the facts relating to department stores and other large business concerns, but the entire mass of facts about the world in which we live — political, economic, religious, scientific, social, and industrial.
It is beginning to be understood that , as Mr, Walter Lippmann ably argued in his recent book on Liberty and the News, access to accurate accounts of what is going on about us is one of the indispensable conditions of freedom. We talk a great deal about the right of the individual to express his opinions, and somewhat less about the advantage to the community, or the nation, or the world, of determining its collective action after the freest discussion; but we are just beginning to see that it is still more vital that the individual shall be able to form his opinion upon the facts. If these facts are withheld from him or misrepresented to him, his opinion is as valueless as that of a judge who has heard incomplete or false evidence in a case. Though the individual may be at liberty to shout his ideas from the housetops, he is still a slave to illusion; and all the more completely a slave than if he were in bonds, because he fancies that he walks freely in the light.
There never was such an age of newspaper-reading as the present. Most of us read — or at least glance at — one, two, or more newspapers a day. They are the eyes through which largely we see the life of our time, and the news that they print is in great measure the raw material of our ideas. Nothing is more important than that through these eyes we shall see, not a distorted picture, but the reality. It is often contended in England, where the Northcliffe press wields far more power than any existing group of American newspapers, and it is occasionally contended in this country by those who take a gloomy view of affairs, that the public is at the mercy of the lords of the press, who feed it such garbled news as will best serve their own selfish purposes. Other critics, such as Professor James Melvin Lee, the author of an illuminating history of American journalism, assure us that the ethics of the newspaper profession are higher today than those of any other. It would seem worth while to consider the whole matter afresh, and decide for ourselves what the public interest requires of the press in the interest of truth, and how far these requirements are being met.
The public interest requires that all unsigned news on the news pages — all news, in other words, which does not bear its own tag, to warn the reader that he is seeing the facts through the spectacles of somebody’s personal opinion — shall be presented as accurately and impartially as is humanly possible. On the editorial page every newspaper proprietor or editor has a right to state his views as forcibly as he wishes; and I for one do not believe, as some people do, that it is necessary for editorials to be individually signed, provided the names of the proprietor and editor are regularly printed somewhere in the paper; for editorials are usually, to some extent, the work of a group rather than of an individual; and in any case, the fact that they appear on the editorial page is fair warning that they are to be regarded as comment rather than as sheer fact.
Papers also have an unquestionable right to commission correspondents to include in their dispatches their personal view of events, provided these dispatches are signed. The imperative thing is that what the press presents as fact shall be fact, given correctly and without bias.
Bias is all the more completely the enemy of truth on account of the slovenly way in which most of us are accustomed to read the papers. For every report that we read through thoroughly and weigh for ourselves, checking the generalizations and summaries in headline and leading paragraph by the details which follow, there are ten that we only glance at. Usually wo carry away nothing but the dim impression that Mr. X has done something disastrous, or that Governor Y has made another fine speech; we retain the bias, and little else. If you doubt that you yourself skim the paper in this way, try handing it to somebody else after you have finished, and making him examine you on the contents of an important article. You will probably soon realize how vaguely most of your news-reading is done, and understand how easily the twist of a phrase in headline or leading paragraph, by giving a biased impression, may cause thousands of readers to form opinions based, not on the facts, but on somebody else’s view of the facts.
This cardinal rule of newspaper ethics — that what is presented as sheer fact should be accurate and without bias — is easy to state. It is harder to live up to than anybody can imagine who has not faced the newspaper man’s problem for himself.
In the first place, it is hard for a reporter, just as for any other person, to give an absolutely accurate account of any event, even when he has seen it with his own eyes. The fallibility of even first-hand evidence from eye-witnesses is well known; no one can read a book like the late Professor Mtinsterberg’s On the Witness Stand without appreciating what the reporter is up against. Furthermore, it is also exceedingly hard to write an account of any event without coloring it with one’s own opinions. Though the reporter has every intention of stating only the clear facts, he may give them bias simply through his choice of language.
Suppose one senator denounces another in a speech. Shall the reporter write, ‘Senator A— sternly rebuked Senator B—,’ or shall he use the words ‘vigorously attacked,’ or ‘sharply attacked,’ or ‘fiercely attacked’? If he decides upon ‘sternly rebuked,’ he seems to favor Senator A—, who uttered the rebuke; if he says ‘fiercely attacked,’ he gives no such favorable impression, and the reader tends instinctively to side with the senator who was attacked. Shall he, in describing an automobile accident, say, ‘The truck was going at a terrific rate,’ or content himself with, ‘The truck was said to have been going thirty miles an hour,’ and leave the reader to decide whether this was a ‘ terrific ’ rate for a t ruck to be going at in that place at that time?
Or suppose he must give an account of something really difficult to record objectively — the applause, let us say, which greeted the closing sentence of President Harding’s inaugural address. Was it enthusiastic or perfunctory; was it general, or half-hearted and scattered? The truth here is a matter of judgment. One man thinks the applause large, because he knows beforehand how hard it is to hear a public speech out of doors without distractions, and therefore expects something less impressive than actually occurs. Another man, who comes to the inaugural expecting an ovation, is disappointed. Then again the reporter’s political sympathies, his personal opinion of Mr. Harding, and his own enthusiasm or lack of enthusiasm for the address are almost sure to influence his judgment of the facts.
If he were the crack reporter of an opposition paper, he might, with every intention of giving the exact truth, write something like this, which appeared in the New York Times on the morning of March 5, 1921: —
Mr. Harding has a good voice, and the amplifier in the roof of the kiosk carried his voice as far as the House and Senate office-buildings. Considering that the average inaugural address is audible only to those who stand within fifteen feet of the President, this was an enormous improvement, and enabled the crowd to manifest its feelings, when it had any, with something like spontaneity.
The address was only thirty-seven minutes long, and Mr. Harding delivered its final pledge with a devout solemnity which did not fail to have its effect on the crowd.
There was a roar of applause as he concluded and turned to receive the congratulations of those near by, Vice President Coolidge being the first to shake hands with him.
Another reporter of Democratic sympathies might regard the applause as Mr. Louis Seibold did in his dispatch to the New York World. After not ing earlier in his account that ‘Five times his [President Harding’s] reading was interrupted by applause, but at no time was there a demonstration in which all of the people gathered in front of him united,’ he quoted the President’s peroration and then wrote: —
The applause that approved this sentiment was rather more general than had followed any other statement made by the new President. Before it hud died away, and while the Marine Band was rendering the national anthem, the crowd began to melt away. Mr. Harding acknowledged the congratulations that were showered upon him by the members of his Cabinet and the leaders of the two Houses.
If, on the other hand, the reporter were favorably inclined toward Mr. Harding and impressed with the speech, he might, see its reception as did the correspondent of the New York Herald, who quoted President Harding’s final sentence and then continued: —
There was a palpable moment of absolute silence. The President remained as if transfixed. The small group standing with him in the white-covered stand seemed Stayed from speech or action by the deep and moving solemnity of the voluntary promise. Then a wave of applause started up from the fringe of the crowd nearest the portico, rolled backward and to the right and left, carried through the massed thousands and became a solid roar. The President waved a hand in happy acknowledgement and turned to meet the eager compliments of his friends.
Readers of the Herald on that March 5 must have thought the address an immense success; readers of the Times and World undoubtedly gained quite a different, opinion; and yet each correspondent may have described the event conscientiously as it appeared to him. In such eases it is almost impossible not to let personal feeling color one’s report.
News may also be colored in the process of selection as well as in that of presentation. Let me take an example such as frequently occurs in my own experience. It is my duty to give to the press the news of a great, university. I do not happen to be a newspaper reporter, but my problem is essentially the same as the reporter’s. When the university’s enrollment figures for the year are made up, the Freshman Class shows a gain in numbers. If, in my announcement to the press, I compare the 1921 figures with those of 1920, or with those of any other year since the war, the gain looks very large. On the other hand, if I compare them with those of 1911, when the Freshman Class happened to be unusually big, the gain looks less impressive. If I mention the fact that part of the gain is caused by a difference in the method of classifying undergraduates, which automatically adds to the Freshman Class a number of men who were formerly listed elsewhere, it looks still less significant. There are thus three or four ways of making the statement. Even though I am honestly anxious to give an accurate impression, it is hard to decide just what facts to select for presentation. And there is, of course, always a temptation to make the gain look more imposing than it, actually is.
Or let us suppose that a reporter is sent, to cover a dinner. Shall he devote his leading paragraph to the size ami enthusiasm of the gathering, or to the consternation caused by the single untoward event, of the evening — a violent and inappropriate statement made by one of the speakers? This again is a question of selection. Sometimes it is a toss-up in the reporter’s mind between the two treatments of the event; and yet the opinion which thousands of readers form of the organization which held the dinner may depend on this apparently unimportant decision.
An added element of difficulty is caused by the speed with which newspapers have to work, and the circumstance that much of the color of a story is necessarily given it in the newspaper office by men who lack a first-hand acquaintance with the facts. There is no opportunity to wait a few hours for a chance to check facts: they are usually worthless unless given to the public instantly. City reporters telephone much of their news to the office, where their statements are taken down hurriedly in a telephone booth, and then thrown into shape by a member of the office staff. Always the headlines are written by the office staff; they have to be, because the reporter cannot tell what size and style of headline is needed, and because the writing of headlines requires a special training. The man who concocts them must read each news-story rapidly and write his ‘head ’ promptly. He cannot waste time upon niceties of emphasis; the all-important thing for him is that the head shall have exactly the right number of letters to fill its space, and that it shall be original and dramatic enough to catch the reader’s attention. Like the reporter, he finds that bias insists on creeping into his presentation of the gist of the news.
Most newspaper inaccuracy is not, however, the result so much of the inherent difficulty of properly collecting and presenting the facts, as of the ignorance, carelessness, and thoughtless indifference to truth of a considerable proport ion of newspaper men.
By the very nature of newspaper organization, the men sent out on assignments usually know too little about the matter in hand. One day a man is instructed to get a story on the immigration problem; the next day, he has to write a breezy interview on a bootlegging case; the next day, he may have to report the visit of Dr. Einstein to a university. He has not the time, even if he had the inclination, to make a preliminary study of the immigration problem, the liquor laws, and the theory of relativity. Newspapers try to develop special abilities in their reporters and, so far as possible, to keep men assigned to the subjects which they know about; but the field of news is so immense that, much of it has to be covered by inexpert men. Besides, many reporters have only a limited education; they know so little that they have no idea how their ignorance handicaps them. And they generally tend to be careless. Their immediate object is usually to get the most newsy and sensational story they can. If they are being paid at space-rates, a breezy story which pleases the jaded eye of the city editor will be printed and will put money in their pocket. If they are salaried reporters, such a story will at least give them prestige with the critics at the city desk. No reporter wants to get the reputation of returning empty-handed, or with a dull story. The temptation is to make a bluff at knowing the subject, and slap the story together anyhow.
Here, for instance, are the headlines and the first two paragraphs of an item which appeared lately in a Boston paper: —
DISCOVERS NEW NEBULAR MASS
PROF. SLTPIIE OF HARVARD FINDS IT GOING AT RECORD SPEED
Prof. V. M. Sliphe of Harvard, stationed at the Flagstaff, Ariz., observatory, peered through his telescope a few nights ago, according to a dispatch received at the Cambridge observatory, and much to his surprise saw a faint, cloud-like, self-luminous mass of attenuated matter situated far outside the solar system, traveling at the rate of 2000 kilometres per second. This rate of speed is twice as great as the fastest nebula yet discovered and 100 times greater than the average speed of the lowly star. In fact, it is the greatest velocity known to astronomy.
The telescope at Flagstaff is situated on San Francisco peak at an altitude of 13,000 feet. Harvard astronomers are manifesting much interest in the matter because of its supposed great distance from the stars ordinarily seen in the heavens and because of the tremendous speed at which it is traveling.
Now, the facts of the case were that the discoverer’s name was not Sliphe, but Slipher; that he was not connected with Harvard, but with the Lowell Observatory; that he did not discover the nebula, which had been known for a long time, but only ascertained its speed; that the telescope at Flagstaff is not at an altitude of thirteen thousand feet, but of about seven thousand; and that it is not situated on San Francisco Peak, but merely in the neighborhood. It would be difficult for ignorance and carelessness to bring about more errors in the space of two paragraphs. What happened was that the Lowell Observatory reported its discovery to the Harvard Observatory, which made a brief announcement to the press; and the news-writer took this announcement, and tried, as he would have put it, to ‘make a good story out of it.’
‘Make a good story.’ That is the cause of infinite newspaper inaccuracy. It is to the interest of each reporter and editor to make a small piece of news look like a big one. College officials soon become resigned to the fact that, to the press, any teacher at a college, no matter of how low a rank, is a ‘ professor.’ An assistant in applied physiology at the Harvard Medical School, a man on one of the lowest rungs of the academic ladder, was arrested not long ago for having a still in his house; and the headline on the front page of a New York paper, the next morning, referred to him as a ‘noted Harvard professor.’ Ignorance of the significance of academic titles may have been partly responsible; but, pretty surely, the desire to make the story look as big as possible was a contributory cause.
The same desire often leads reporters at a public meeting to lay disproportionate emphasis on a sensational remark made by a speaker. The remark may have little real significance, and the reporters may misquote it because they happen to be half asleep when it is made, or are not even in the room and get it second-hand afterward from some neighbor of uncertain memory; but, if the remark seems striking enough to make a big story, that fact may outweigh in their minds every other consideration.
Akin to the temptation to make a small story look big is the temptation to make an otherwise dignified story look breezy. A Boston newspaper recently printed an interview with a Harvard physician on the importance of using the feet, properly in standing and walking, as shown in the physical examinations of Harvard freshmen. It was an interesting interview, carefully prepared by an intelligent and well-equipped reporter. But the editor to whom the interview was submitted decided that it was too heavy: it needed to be brightened up. So he headed it —
WHY BE SAD? FEET ARE THE SOURCE OF ALL JOY
HARVARD EXPERT TELLS HOW TO DRIVE CLOUDS AWAY IN SIX SHORT WEEKS
And the illustration — a photograph of the physician — the editor surrounded with a border of ‘ Joys ’ and ‘ Glooms,’ after the fashion of the comic cartoons. In thus misrepresenting the nature of the interview, he succeeded in making ridiculous the man who had taken the trouble to give it; but to this particular editor nothing mattered except that he made it look like the sort of low-comedy stuff to which his mind was attuned.
The newspaper that goes in for entertainment at all costs is bound to distort the news, because it leaves out much that is important but not entertaining, and puts in much that is entertaining but not important. If General Dawes, at a Congressional hearing, speaks his mind vigorously about critics of the A.E.F., that is important news. If, in doing so, he uses highly picturesque profanity, that makes for entertainment. To put in the profanity and leave out the argument might, make the story more brisk, but it would be misrepresenting General Dawes and the significance of what he said.
Writing recently of the treatment, of Parliamentary news by the Northcliffe press, Mr. A. G. Gardiner, formerly editor of the London Daily News, said, ‘Parliament was treated as a music-hall turn. If it was funny, it was reported; if it was serious, it was ignored. . . . The Midlothian Campaign of Gladstone, which used to fill pages of the newspapers, would to-day be dismissed in an ill-reported halfcolumn summary, devoted, not to the argument, but to the amusing asides and the irrelevant, interruptions.’ The same thing might be said of the Washington correspondence of ail too many American newspapers. What makes socalled yellow journalism really dangerous is not so much its appetite for scandal as its continual distortion of the news in t he interest of undiluted entertainment.
Sometimes, it must be admitted, misrepresentation is brought about, not by the inherent difficulty of stating the facts without prejudice, not by ignorance, carelessness, or the desire to entertain, but by deliberate intention. The newspaper profession is made up of all sorts of people, some of whom eagerly seize opportunities to present the news so as to favor their friends and put in an unfavorable light their enemies — personal, political, and economic. It is this practice which that extraordinary diatribe, The Brass Check, by Mr. Upton Sinclair, is devoted to exposing. Mr. Sinclair cites case after case in which the press has falsified the news, and comes to the conclusion that, the newspapers are in a plot to twist the news to their own ends, and thus to serve the purposes of capital.
It is a pretty safe plan to take with several grains of salt most allegations regarding the existence of widespread conspiracies. We have been fed to repletion lately with supposed conspiracies of radicals, Bolsheviki, Jews, and so forth, and we are happily beginning to acquire some common sense. To my mind the evidence of misrepresentation collected by Mr. Sinclair and by other critics of the press proves, not that there is any conspiracy among newspaper men to withhold the truth from the public, but merely that, newspaper owners, editors, and reporters are fallible; actuated too often by self-interest; too often ready to take the ‘practical’ view of things and to see on which side their bread is buttered; too often inclined to fight by illegitimate means what they dislike; and too often subject to those surges of mob-feeling that lead men to pillory those whom they detest.
Take, for example, that part of Mr. Sinclair’s book in which he tells of his own unfortunate experiences with the press. It shows with what glee newspaper men — like other ordinary mortals — will sometimes join the pack to hunt t hose whom they dislike. Mr. Sinclair is unpopular with t he press. When he founds Helicon Hall, a cooperative ‘home colony’; when he gets into difficulties with the Delaware authorities for playing Sunday tennis; when he disputes the amount of his bill for shredded wheat at a San Francisco hotel, the newspapers are after him like a gang of small boys after a stray dog.
Other examples of the same sort of hoodlumism on the part of newspapers come readily to mind. Recently the press howled similarly about the heels of Mr. Bouck White. When the inhabitants of the village where he was staving saw fit to tar-and-fcather him because of charges his young French wife had made against him, the press joined in the fun, and in lengt hy reports, satirically written, applied their own kind of tar-and-feathers. They did not. like him or his economic views, and they leaped at the chance to make him an object of ridicule and scorn. Plots on the part of the capitalist press? Not a bit of it. Average men on the rampage, using the weapon of misrepresentation because it is nearest at hand.
There is no question that newspapers often give biased reports of strikes and other industrial conflicts. But, again, the charge of a conspiracy is too farfetched. The reason these things happen is that the press is a human institution, and that much capital is required to run a newspaper. Owners of papers mostly have large financial interests and positive views on political, economic, and other matters. Many of them are excessively timid about offending financially influential people, which usually means conservative people. Newspaper owners are not all equally conscientious about the fairness of their news. Editors and reporters find out that what pays is to write the sort, of newsstories which pleases the man at the top. In rare cases, of course, there may be actual corruption; but more often what puts bias into the news is merely the permeation of the staff by a sense of expediency. They put their jobs first and the truth second.
Often, oddly enough, the motives that lead to such misrepresentation of the news are praiseworthy. A newspaper proprietor believes that the unions are a menace. He believes that every good citizen ought to understand and oppose their methods. He wants to stir up the public. He thinks of himself as crusading against radicalism. He would be ashamed to print in his paper a word of news which would seem to favor the unions. He does not go so far as to pass the word down that the news must be distorted, for he does not believe in distortion. He simply wants to keep his paper clean of pro-union propaganda, as he fancies it. An item in the paper meets his eye; to him it seems radical; he explodes, and soon the staff is on its guard against another explosion. And then, perhaps, actual misrepresentation takes place. It is so easy! If even honest reporters, trying their best, find it difficult to exclude prejudice from their reports, how simple it is, when you don’t try too hard, to make a strikers’ meeting look like a failure when it really was a success, or to make Mr. William Z. Foster look redder than he is, or to pick out just the proper incidents to show how local public opinion looks upon the issues of the strike! How easy to make Senator A—’s denunciation of Senator B— appear the well-justified act of a man sorely tried and at last giving vent to righteous indignation! And all because the men on the staff of the paper are weak, like other human beings, and because the owner fails to realize that the triumph of any cause, no matter how excellent, should be to him secondary to the duty of telling the truth.
There is much less outright, intimidation or domination of the newspapers by advertisers than is often supposed. Many a newspaper has defied department stores successfully. Domination of the press by the department stores was probably common thirty years ago; to-day it is comparatively infrequent. And the whole process of corrupting the news, where corruption to-day exists, is less often the deliberate work of men bent on falsehood than a process of drifting before the winds of circumstance, timidity, and self-interest.
The newspaper profession is steadily advancing, not only in the effectiveness of its news-gathering machinery, but also in its standing in the community and in its ethical standards. Early in the last century there was so little recognition of the rights of the press that Henry Clay, making a political speech in Kentucky, ordered off the field a reporter who had the impertinence to report him without first getting special permission. It was not until some time after the beginning of the Civil War that the Government at Washington made satisfactory arrangements for issuing its news to all newspaper men simultaneously, instead of giving it haphazard to the first comer. Now the President and the members of his Cabinet confer with the press representatives once or twice a day; and, as a matter of course, reporters are given front seats at almost every kind of public occasion.
Two generations ago the leading New York editors called each other blackguards and scoundrels in their editorial columns — a practice which to-day would be considered disreputable. Some twenty years ago Mr. Henry Watterson declared that journalism was ‘without any code of ethics or system of self-restraint and self-respect; The standard of newspaper conduct and of impartiality has risen conspicuously since then. The papers of one political party cannot dismiss the deeds of their opponents with such brief notice as they could once. In the recent presidential campaign, a Republican paper in Boston gave more space than any of the Democratic papers to an appeal for Mr. Cox issued by a group of men in New York, while a Democratic paper in t he same city ran a straw ballot and printed the results day by day on its front page, although they favored Mr. Harding. Despite all that I have said about the frequent tendency among newspaper owners to side with targe financial interests, it must in fairness be acknowledged that most papers give front-page space to Mr. Gompers quite as readily as to Judge Gary. Editors now observe with the utmost care release dates on material furnished them in advance, and most newspaper men can be trusted with confidential information or with facts not yet ripe for publication.
Assiduous as Mr. Sinclair may be in picking out for display the black spots in the record of the Associated Press, I believe this great news-disseminating service to be about as thoroughly imbued with the spirit of impartiality as any organization of its size and extent could well be. Its reports from Washington are models of fairness as between Republicans and Democrats. When I wrote of the difficulty of preparing an unbiased report, perhaps I should have added, ‘ But it can be done — witness the A.P. service from Washington.’ The conduct of the Associated Press in political campaigns is equally scrupulous. If sometimes, in some places, its correspondents reflect the economic prejudices of the owners of its member papers, no one should judge it for such transgressions without taking into account. the tremendous influence that it wields elsewhere on behalf of accuracy.
Yet, if the press is to carry successfully the increasing responsibility which results from the public’s increasing reliance upon it, it must not be content with its present record of improvement. How can improvement be hastened?
I believe that the newspapers ought, first of all, to make a more deliberate effort to secure men of education and discrimination for reporters. Schools of journalism are valuable to this end, both on account of the preparation they give and of the added prestige they lend to the profession. One of the things which deter many men of ability and character from entering newspaper work is the prospect of low pay and difficult hours. A man on a morning paper has to be on his job when his friends are enjoying their hours of recreation and sleep. I once met an experienced newspaper man who breakfasted when his family took their dinner, at 7 P.M. ; who worked all night, had his playtime in the early morning, dined while his family breakfasted, and then went to bed for the day: not a schedule that many people would look forward to as their lot in middle life! Most newspaper men do not get a Sunday holiday: their day of rest may come at any time in the week. Again, most newspaper offices are ugly, crowded, and grimy — far less agreeable places to work in than business offices. The exceptions to this rule — such, for example, as the offices of the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor — are conspicuous. All these circumstances tend to make journalism an unattractive calling.
In some cities reporters’ unions are said to have proved useful in securing better conditions of work; but I cannot believe that this is the right solution of the problem. The reporter should be regarded and should regard himself, not as a laborer, but as a professional man. Whatever newspaper proprietors can do to enhance the dignity and prestige of his occupation, whether by increasing his pay, compensating him for his difficult hours by giving him more holidays, — as Lord Northcliffe is already said to have done, — or making his workingplace more attractive, will bear dividends in the form of more intelligent and responsible work by a generally better type of reporter.
A deliberate attempt ought also to be made by the more conscientious newspaper publishers and editors, acting presumably through their various professional associations, to formulate in more definite terms a code of newspaper ethics. It would be useful if they would discuss and ventilate such ethical problems as that of the propriety of printing dispatches actually prepared in the newspaper office but purporting to come from a distance. Associations of publishers or editors might also advantageously offer prizes for accuracy in the treatment of critical events, the awards to be made after thorough investigation by an impartial jury. The Pulitzer prizes, now awarded annually, are cases in point; but these do not reward accuracy so much as reportorial brilliance and editorial initiative, which usually are financially profitable in any case. The important thing is to stimulate new spapers to present the unbiased truth.
Most of the suggest ions usually made for the improvement of newspaper ethics seem to me to miss the mark. One idea constantly brought, forward is that of the endowed newspaper, which would not depend on advertising for its revenue. The endowed paper might possibly be more accurate than its competitors; but again it might not, and it would all too surely be less interesting. To remove the necessity of making profits is to remove incentives to originality, as well as temptat ions. Municipal newspapers are often advocated, and Mr. Bryan would like to see an Official Bulletin, which would issue news of the Federal Government. But government control of any sort would bring about inevitably the sort of political bias least to be desired; and an Official Bulletin would almost certainly become an instrument of political propaganda by the party in power.
Another more fruitful suggestion is that of creating independent news-agencies at important centres, such as Washington, to send out unprejudiced reports and thus to serve as a check upon the established press associations and the regular Washington correspondents. Such agencies would, I fear, only irritate newspaper men if they attempted direct competition with the press associations. They might serve a useful purpose, however, if they confined themselves to indirect competition, serving, not newspapers, but magazines, business houses, and the like, somewhat as several statistical agencies now furnish data on business conditions to banks and other subscribers. The trained Washington correspondents of various periodicals now do excellent service in giving the public a view of the workings of the government rather different from that gained through the eyes of the press. And a privately controlled Washington news-agency, furnishing carefully prepared news from week to week, would be of use to individuals whose local newspapers have an inadequate Washington service, and yet who want to keep close track of government affairs, and also would tend to have a tonic effect upon the news-gathering organization of the press. It would challenge, not any single press association or single newspaper, but the whole profession. Nothing stimulates one to tell an accurate story so much as the knowledge that one’s hearer has an independent means of getting his information, and will pick one up if one goes far wrong.
Yet even such agencies would have only a limited value. They might be helpful in Washington or other critical points, but for the present we must remain dependent on the newspaper for our principal knowledge of what is going on all over the country and the world. And improvement of the newspaper profession must come about principally from within.
Criticism by the outside public there must be, however, — constant, watchful, and constructive, — accompanied by an increasing public appreciation of the dignity of journalism. In some quarters the obsolescent notion still prevails that reporters are impudent interlopers and busybodies. Thick-skinned reporters grow callous to such an attitude, but the thick-skinned are not always the most sensitive to accuracy. Ignorant and insolent as newspaper men sometimes are, their profession alone should be enough to command courteous treatment. It is useless to expect a high standard from men, unless the attitude of the community toward them contributes to their self-respect.
Meanwhile, it would be a good thing if all of us who read the newspapers — and that means pretty nearly everybody — knew enough about newspaper organization and methods to be better judges of the credibility of the news. I should like to see lectures on ’How to Read the Newspapers’ given in colleges and schools and elsewhere. It is as essenl ial for the citizen of t his day to be able to read the morning paper with a discriminating eye — to be able to distinguish the A.P. dispatch from the special correspondent’s forecast of conditions, and the fact story from the rumor story, and to be able to take into account the probable bias of the paper and make allowance for it — as it is for a lawyer to learn to assess the value of evidence. Only as we are able to estimate the relative amount of credence to be given to conflicting reports, and to judge for ourselves the reliability of the sources of the news, do we come somewhere near seeing that true picture of the world about us which we must see if we are to play our part in it intelligently and independently.