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A Press That Polices Itself

May K. Tse

I've been writing for The Tech for the past three years, and Ihave to admit, we've been wrong a few - no, make that several - times. We were wrong when we published three articles bashing the Media Lab without also running a story noting its good points to add balance; we were wrong when we did not double-check a Holocaust-revisionist ad; and some would definitely say that the infamous column by Stacey E. Blau '98 ["Hypocritical Fraternities Embarrass MIT," Feb. 25, 1997] criticizing the Greek system was way over the top. Does this statement make me a traitor of The Tech?

Well, to answer this question, you first need to ask, how loyal should a person be to their organization?For some groups like the military or highly competitive firms, complete loyalty is an unspoken code of conduct; otherwise, people would die and companies would crumble if a traitor leaked military and trade secrets. This same idea of loyalty extends to not publicly bad-mouthing one's organization. For instance, if sports stars publicly criticized their own teams, then what kind of impression would this give to their fans?

It is an anomaly and a breach of this unspoken contract, then, that journalists should be "disloyal" and allowed to criticize their peers and their own organization for poor or distasteful coverage. In addition, some would also say that it is hypocritical for a member of the press to find fault with the press at large,which is what occurred with the media circus that erupted when Princess Diana died. Nevertheless, Ibelieve that members of the press should indeed have this right to criticize their own, and to do so frankly and unabashedly.

The press has a wide audience, and it should be responsible for what it presents to that audience. The job of the press is not only to report on the who, what, when, and where, but also on the why and how. These two things are sometimes interpreted quite differently, and often controversies arise, especially regarding the reasons why something is right or why it is wrong. However, the job of the press is not to be some messenger of God (or any other higher being) that people should listen to verbatim, but rather a watchdog on society that raises issues and brings different points of views to the public light. The press should stimulate discourse on subject like politics, social problems, and ethics - including the ethics of the press.

Sometimes the things newspapers publish, or that a television broadcast depicts, are not proper nor completely truthful. It might seem traitorous for a journalist or television anchor to admit, "We were wrong when we said this,"but if members of the press do not keep themselves in check, then who will do it? The press must be a watchdog on everything. It is not a matter of being hypocritical so much as it is to be generally critical of all topics, including ones involving the press itself. Moreover, it is the very responsibility of the press to provide coverage on all types of problems including those of their own; it might not seem loyal to the organization itself but it is loyal to the purpose for which it exists.

This idea is not a new one. In the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows has written numerous columns regarding the ethics of the press. "Because journalism cannot be regulated or steered by outsiders," writes Fallows, "our craft depends more than any other on constant self-examination by those inside."Similar to the way that people in democracies can vote to put checks on their government, so do members of the press put checks on themselves. It is sometimes embarrassing and awkward to admit imperfection, but the press should remember first our responsibility to our audience and not to our sponsors, friends, or other affiliations.

Fallows also points out that "journalists should think of themselves as being part of society, sharing responsibility for the long-term health of culture and democracy, rather than being strictly detached observers whose duty is only to point out that things are going wrong."It's true that the press is often seen as the bearers of "gloom and doom" but Ithink that we need to remember that bringing up issues in society means not only bringing up what's wrong with our society, but also, what's right. The job of the press is a complicated one with gray areas, but if we keep ourselves (and everyone else in the world) in check, then we have done our job correctly. The truth is out there, we just need to point out different paths to it for our audience rather than try to proclaim that we know the only way to get there.