September 28, 2004

Dan’s great teaching moment…

From a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll of 1,006 adults released Monday:

56% said that Rather and CBS had made an honest mistake–perhaps because of “carelessness in their fact-checking and reporting.” Asked if CBS News should fire Rather, 64% said no.

Are Americans media literate? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. This poll result suggests to me that more citizens need to read The Elements of Journalism. The honesty of Rather’s mistake (“Rather” has become a synecdoche for CBS News) in political terms is certainly debatable. But his honesty in terms of professional practice is certainly not. The discipline of verification is the stuff of Journalism 101. Rather failed to adequately verify his information. Are we really talking carelessness here? Or arrogance? Or blind professional competitiveness? Or something else?

I wonder how these poll results might have changed if the 1,006 adults understood this to the same extent that my students now do (thanks to Dan!).

5 Responses

  1. MWS 

    Or if they had gone to a doctor, for example, who made an “honest mistake” and prescribed the wrong medicaton? (Which almost happened to me.)

    It’ funny, the less people know about how a profession operates, they seem to make two contradictory types of assumptions (and I think this is expecially true about journalism); either that something is easier than it actually is so mistakes are the result of malice or that it is harder than it is and mistakes are just “honest.”

    In Rather’s case, it seems clear that he violated basic professional standards in the same way that a lawyer that failed to check a case citation in a brief would be violating a basic professional standard. Mistakes happen, but there is little excuse for a mistake like that.

  2. Tim 

    Does the question ask for a judgment of the actions and decisions (thinking) in airing the program (“mistakes were made”) without considering the behavior (reacting based on emotions) that occurred later (the coverup vs. the crime)?

    You state, “The honesty of Rather’s mistake … in political terms is certainly debatable.”

    Is an “honest mistake” in political terms a measure of malice? Malice derived from political partisanship? If respondents think malice may have played some role in the actions by Mapes but she misled all others, is “Rather and CBS” a vague enough group to outweigh the actions of one “bad actor”?

    Finding no malice, do people consider, and differ, on ignorance or negligence as the cause of an “honest mistake”. What about incompetence?

    Does “honest” evoke connotations of professionalism including competence, integrity and ethics?

    “Are we really talking carelessness here? Or arrogance? Or blind professional competitiveness? Or something else?”

    In this highly charged partisan atmosphere, we are initially, perhaps primarily, talking malice and the majority of respondents do not believe that Rather or the aggregate (CBS) are guilty of malice. Having discounted malice, an “honest mistake” can occur as a result of incompetence and unethical behavior if the standards for competence and ethical behavior are low, unknown or misunderstood by the respondents.

    “Are Americans media literate?”

    No.

  3. I picked a few because it’s late…

    Re: Is an “honest mistake” in political terms a measure of malice? Malice derived from political partisanship?

    I mean that malicious political intent or bias on the part of CBS/Rather is debatable, i.e. still open for discussion.

    Re: What about incompetence?

    I find it difficult to believe that’s what we’re talking about here. Verification is elementary stuff.

    Re: Does “honest” evoke connotations of professionalism including competence, integrity and ethics?

    Among other things, yes.

  4. Tim 

    I have one more based on your response.

    Do you think the degree news journalism is perceived by the public to be a profession or craft/trade is different from your own and part of media literacy?

  5. Hmmmm…good question.

    Short answer: yes. But, then, who says my view of it as a profession and/or craft accurately describes what it is the press really is? 🙂