As journalists, we value truth above all. We seek it vigorously, report it unbiasedly and endure the wrath of those in power when the false image they want to publicly project is marred by what they have done.
The truth journalists report can be ugly: Truth can sink politicians, derail careers, bankrupt companies and send otherwise good men and women who have done wrong to jail, but the truth we report also saves lives, frees the innocent, gives a voice to the voiceless, instills hope in our communities and shows the integrity and selflessness of those we have elected to lead.
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Recently, Brian Williams, the news anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, has come under fire, pun intended, for misreporting his experiences while imbedded with the U.S. military during the first days of the Iraq War.
Williams initially reported to his audience a Chinook helicopter in his convoy was hit by enemy fire and forced to land. By 2007, his story exaggerated small arms fire into a rocket-propelled grenade, and in 2013, the story had become that his helicopter had been hit by the RPG, when in truth, his undamaged helicopter safely landed at the scene nearly an hour after the damaged helicopter.
After Williams repeated the story again Jan. 30, military personnel came forward to contradict his tale. He admitted his “mistake” on air Feb. 6 and subsequently took a leave of absence. NBC initiated an investigation into the story and on Tuesday, Feb. 10, suspended him without pay for six months.
Many of Williams’ other stories are now under scrutiny, especially those he made in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, such as seeing roving gangs inside the Ritz-Carlton, dead bodies floating in the French Quarter and witnessing a man commit suicide inside the Superdome.
Williams’ exaggerations have eroded the public’s trust in him, likely ending his career and casting a stain on his network, which will take years to repair with viewers.
Trust is a covenant made between reporters, news agencies and our audiences. We do not take lightly this oath to seek the truth. As a team, the members of a newsroom must trust each other implicitly so we can present to our readers the news of our community faithfully, even if the truth may be harmful to some.
We must trust that our news sources and colleagues are honest with us. If someone in our profession, elected office or the public lies to us — and gets caught — they have forsaken their currency with us because they have sought to deceive our readers and threatened our covenant.
The Founding Fathers gave our profession special protection from government interference in the First Amendment, a gift, duty and debt we try to repay every time our presses roll.