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The Journalist's Role

( An Excerpt from "The Handbook of Independent Journalism")

New technologies have made it possible for anyone with a computer to disseminate information as widely as the largest news organizations. But a well-designed Internet site, no matter how well it's written or how often it's updated, is not necessarily a reliable source of news. The truth is that in a complex world where information is no longer a scarce commodity, the role of the journalist has become more important than ever.

Unlike a propagandist or a gossip, the journalist sorts through the information available and determines how much of it is valuable and reliable before passing it on to the public. News stories, whether hard news or features, must be accurate. Journalists not only collect the information they need to tell the story, they have to verify the information before they can use it. Journalists rely on first-hand observation whenever possible and consult multiple sources to make sure the information they receive is reliable. And, except on rare occasions, they identify the sources of their information so the audience can evaluate its credibility.

But journalism is more than just the distribution of fact-based information. Propaganda also may be based on facts, but those facts are presented in such a way as to influence people's opinions. As we've already noted, public relations professionals use facts, as well, but may tell only one side of a story. Journalists, on the other hand, strive to be fair and complete. They strive to tell an accurate and authentic story, one that reflects reality, not their own perception of it or anyone else's.

Another distinction between journalism and other forms of information is that journalists strive for independence from the people they cover. A public relations professional who is employed by the organization he or she is writing about is unlikely to include information that might make the organization look bad. A journalist, on the other hand, will attempt to provide a complete picture, even if it is not entirely positive.

Journalists are not mere transmission belts for their own viewpoints or for information provided by others. They do original reporting, they do not confuse fact with opinion or rumor, and they make sound editorial decisions. A principal responsibility of journalism, says Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, is "applying judgment to information."

Unlike other purveyors of information, journalists owe their primary allegiance to the public. As Canada's Montreal Gazette states in its code of ethics, "A newspaper's greatest asset is its integrity. Respect for that integrity is painfully won and easily lost." To maintain that integrity, journalists work hard to avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.