Credibility and creativity form the foundation of reputable media outlets and practitioners, which may survive loss of the second commodity but not the first. Trust violated over time will erode ethos and efficacy of both the printed and electronic "voice." That leaves publications and broadcast outlets with a hollow ring that merits diminished credence.
Time magazine and CNN are the latest to be reminded of this reality as they wipe egg from their faces for news stories about U.S. military use of nerve gas on defectors. The accounts turned out to be fairy tales.Retractions and apologies have been issued, but restoring reputations and public confidence will take time. Tainted credibility is not restored overnight.
Unfortunately, this faux pas comes when faith in the media already is fragile. Time and CNN have magnified that mistrust, to their direct discredit and to the disadvantage of all responsible journalists.
Worse, there is more besides the Time-CNN fiasco - an untrue accusation of U.S. troops using nerve gas in Laos 30 years ago against some of their own. We also have admissions of deceit from award-winning writers with the New Republic and Boston Globe, leading to their resignations, and the Cincinnati Enquirer offering front-page retractions for three days and $10 million payoff for a business expose based upon stolen information.
Behind it all is the sometimes misguided, uncontrolled drive to be first, biggest and best with news and feature stories or to win prestigious peer awards. Competitive instincts are tolerable in journalism as in any free-enterprise venture, but they must always fall within the confines of accuracy, integrity and responsibility.
That will not ensure a flawless product in a business driven by constant deadlines and pressing time constraints, but it will minimize the likelihood of mistakes. And gaffes made will tend to be minor and quickly owned up to, a characteristic of any reputable professional. Most mainstream news organizations operate on responsible footings and police themselves for their own good.
As the media wave the sword of the First Amendment in demanding freedom of expression, they are wise to remember that sword may be quickly dulled when misused to gain a perceived competitive edge. And through guilt by association, everybody in the business suffers because of it.