Karen List: In hothouse of today’s news, verification paramount

Last modified: Saturday, February 01, 2014
AMHERST — Linda Wertheimer has covered politics for National Public Radio since the early 1970s and is considered one of the founding mothers of NPR. She looks at the shift in journalism from print to digital as “chaotic” and wonders if the “new rules are no rules.”

Eric Athas, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 2008, also works for NPR, using every tool at his disposal to help its 268 member stations field “better digital journalists.” He says he tries to motivate them to do their best journalism, which for him involves using social media like Facebook and Twitter.

Both Wertheimer and Athas spoke recently to journalism students at UMass. But if you think their messages were poles apart, you’d be wrong.

While they might view the new digital tools differently, both are devoted to producing journalism that ensures the greatest measure of credibility. Both stress the importance of accuracy and fairness in bringing readers, listeners and viewers the best possible stories, underpinned by enduring ethical values.

Both clearly have internalized, as Wertheimer said, “how to do the right thing.” They just do the right thing differently.

In a field like journalism that has changed so radically, their shared belief in traditional ethical principles is worth considering, especially when it comes from two practitioners 40 years apart in age and light years apart in approach.

Wertheimer has covered every president since Richard Nixon and 12 presidential election nights for “All Things Considered.” She is accustomed to working in an “edited world” in which editors serve as filters, enforcing the rules and helping catch mistakes.

In today’s “sea of information,” sometimes unconfirmed and unedited, “it’s all on you,” she told the students, and when you make mistakes, it’s hard to take them back.

Wertheimer described her approach to reporting like this: “I show up, see clearly and report what I saw.” She believes in information, “not affirmation”: “I work for my audience, not myself, so my personal feelings don’t really come into it.” She chooses not to use social media in her reporting, she says, because it involves a degree of exposure with which she’s not comfortable. She doesn’t think she’s the story, and she sees herself as “standing on the sidelines.”

Athas doesn’t see himself as the story either, and he expresses the same devotion to accuracy and fairness as Wertheimer does.

Six years ago when he started work at the Washington Post, the notion of using social media in reporting didn’t exist. But now he’s a master at it.

“Exactly the same ethical principles apply,” he says. “It’s just more complicated. It’s uncharted territory, and everyone’s learning on the fly.” Although the two reporters’ work is guided by the same ethical compass, Athas does say that the speed at which news can be reported now means credibility can be lost much faster: “It’s easier to lose and more difficult to get back.”

Athas now helps NPR reporters learn how to use Facebook and Twitter to gather information, but, like Wertheimer, he understands the importance of skepticism, and also like her, he verifies as much as possible, often confirming what he gets online by going offline, on the phone or face-to-face.

In this fast-moving new world where mistakes are made fast too, he stresses the importance of transparency about the reporting process and quick corrections.

A great example of reporting using social media, he says, was NPR’s coverage of the law enforcement lock-down in Watertown after the Boston Marathon bombing. Twitter allows searching by location, so tweets, including photos, from Watertown were gathered, then verified by going back to the profiles of those posting. The tweets and photos were embedded in a social media aggregation tool called Storify, which quickly attracted 300,000 hits.

Athas says that about a third of the NPR journalists across the country with whom he works are excited to use social media on stories like Watertown. Another third have little experience but want to learn. And a third are not interested.

Wertheimer would be in the latter group, but that has nothing to do with age, Athas says, and everything to do with attitude and reporting style.

So while Athas and Wertheimer use different approaches to their reporting, they seek to bring the same ethical values to their work.

“I am a trusted reporter,” says Wertheimer, whose stories are heard by millions of listeners. “If I say it, it’s true.” She’s absolutely right — and so is Athas. Both of these reporters illustrate the fact that the more things change in journalism, the more ethical principles can and should stay the same.

Karen List is acting chair of the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts.