It is a pretty basic and accepted rule for all walks of life and every endeavor one may undertake. But Journalism and lying have a particularly contentious relationship.
During the very first meeting of the Ohio University chapter of Society of Professional Journalists (check out the latest blog entry to your immediate right), we young pups were entreated to a slide show about the basics of Journalism. As you may probably be able to guess from the repeated motif so far, the first slide read "don't lie." Of course there was a small tittering of laughter around Scripps Hall Room 101. We have been told since we were soiling our Pampers that we should not lie. And here was just another chapter of the same lesson we have always been taught.
But as is the case with most things in college (I would hope), this idea goes a little further. Telling a truth is a basic and dichotomous concept. It is easy: one either does or doesn't. But for such an easily understood, perhaps childish notion telling the truth is the promise that holds an entire industry, culture and way of life together.
The thousands of people that work in the media, the billions of people that receive the media, the dizzying amount of capital involved in sustaining the media, the state of the art technology that distributes the media-all are bound together and kept alive by one very simple promise. The media only exists based on the notion that the information being transmitted and received is the truth.
I am not bringing this up to show my peers, professors, and all internet peoples than I am being a good little prospective Journalist in knowing and following the rules. I am not bringing this up to criticize this black or white interpretation of the truth or the industry's reliance on it. And I am not bring this up to tell a story of a young strapping-writer-who-lost-his-way and fabricated aspects of stories. No, I only bring this up so I can share with you the enormity of one simple idea. One little idea holds the key to the legitimacy of an entire industry and everything that industry relies.
Every industry has rules and laws that govern itself. Doctors "do no harm." Officers of the law "protect and serve." Journalists simply "don't lie." It is a social contract that every reporter and writer must observe if he or she wants to report the news and be a part of that exclusive fraternity: the media.
It seems easy but if it were Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke wouldn't exist. Sometimes the truth is boring. And boring is always a scary proposition for any person who draws their livelihood from the masses receiving his or her work. So the temptation and the pressure will always be there to fabricate and to lie. But Journalism believes in their one and their only law.
What I find fascinating is the immediate and brutal reaction from the Journalism community when one of their own is found to have lied. In short, "one of their own" is not "one of their own" anymore. Journalism is no longer the career for that person, no matter how much time, money and effort he or she spent to become a Journalist. The industry polices itself and does not need the help from the outside world.
As it turns out those two words written on the slide show mean a lot more than they seem. "Don't lie" is the credo, the promise and the livelihood of all Journalism. It is always there, immutable. It will never change. Actually if we look up "contractions" in the AP Style Guide then the one rule might change.
"Do not lie."
There, that's much better.