An Unfettered Press

Rights and Responsibilities

By Robert H. Estabrook


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has a much quoted clause that reads as follows: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." From that fundamental precept in what is known as the Bill of Rights derives what is to me perhaps the most basic ethical tenet of journalism in the United States: The press is independent of government.

The founders of the United States were suspicious of the tendency of government, even the best-intentioned government, to become tyrannical at times. Governments are composed of human beings, and human beings can and do commit wrongs. For this reason, the authors of the First Amendment envisaged the press, despite all of its imperfections, as a kind of critic, with a role apart and distinct from that of government.

Clearly, nothing in the Bill of Rights says that newspapers and government cannot cooperate on occasion. But the intent of the founders was that the press and government should not become institutional partners. They are natural adversaries with different functions, and each must respect the role of the other. Sometimes a free press can be a distinct annoyance and an embarrassment to a particular government, but that is one of the prices of liberty. A free press is responsible to its readers, and to them alone.

Independence is at the very heart of any statement of ethical principles respecting the conduct of the press. The proprietors of a newspaper may choose to ally it with a particular political party or interest, but an increasing number of newspapers and journals in the United States are politically independent as well as independent of government. This means not that they refrain from endorsing a certain political party or a candidate for public office, but rather that they owe no prior allegiance and that they make the endorsement voluntarily, as an exercise of their independence.

From this it follows that an independent press must cherish that role by resisting pressures of all kinds -- from local as well as national government, from special interest groups in the community, from powerful individuals, from advertisers. This is a noble standard that is sometimes more difficult to follow in a small community than in a large one. It may be relatively easy for a large, well-financed newspaper to risk the displeasure of a particular interest group or advertiser. But on a small paper, where the support of such an advertiser or interest has a direct bearing on the ability of management to meet the payroll, it takes courage to resist pressure.

From this also flows the point that the newspaper and its staff should exemplify independence in their actions. Not only should they be independent in fact, but they must be seen to be independent. A newspaper that rewards its friends with unwarranted, flattering stories or fawning editorials will not long be respected. A newspaper whose reporters also are on the payroll of a special interest group or who accept free trips or lavish gifts will find it hard to be convincing in its criticisms of corruption or other unethical practices in government.

Occasionally, newspapers attempt to justify the acceptance of gifts or services. A conscientious reporter will hardly be corrupted, so the argument goes, by a free meal or ticket to a sports event or to the theater. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, appearances are important. I know of one newspaper that accepts every trip or gift that is offered, on the theory that by taking everything, it will be seen to be incorruptible. I have a different view, and I suspect that some of the newspaper's readers may also: Newspapers ought to pay their own way.

Admittedly, in small communities, journalists sometimes may encounter problems in maintaining an independent role. There are pressures to participate in volunteer services, in clubs and business associations, and even in local government. Conflicts of interest may arise frequently.

Journalists cannot expect to be walled apart from the community in which they live. But neither can they serve two masters with opposing interests. A conscientious editor or reporter will at least be aware of the conflicts and keep his or her professional responsibilities foremost in mind.

What special responsibilities does the press incur in return for the protected status its freedom enjoys? None that is explicitly spelled out. A newspaper has the right to be captious, or partisan, or untruthful, or bigoted, or whatever else its conscience allows it to be. And although newspapers are answerable to the laws of libel, within a very large compass they continue to set their own responsibilities. The underlying idea is that, from the clash of opinions and ideas presented by a free press, ultimately something resembling truth emerges.

In practice, however, truth does not always emerge unless someone digs it out. And there is no single patented version of what constitutes truth. In a community where only one newspaper exists -- which increasingly is the pattern in the United States -- a reader may not encounter differing opinions unless the newspaper chooses to present them. Radio and television are not always effective substitutes.

But this is not such a calamity as it once would have seemed, because there is more and more sense of professionalism among American journalists. This means recognition of the importance of fair and balanced reporting in which opinions that differ from those of the writer, or the newspaper, or a government official are nevertheless accurately portrayed.

It is rare to find a newspaper in the United States today that does not deliberately separate its own opinions from the objective presentation of facts. News stories and analysis are presented on the news pages, with their origins and sources identified wherever possible. The newspaper's own opinions are presented on the editorial page, which may also carry signed columns from syndicated writers or staff members of the newspaper itself.

American newspapers today recognize the responsibility to open their letters columns and opposite-editorial pages to all views. Many newspapers receive far more letters than they can publish and therefore must choose what they regard as a fair representation, editing for libel, decency, and germaneness. Many newspapers employ ombudsmen, who act as a sort of public advocate in listening to complaints, offering remedies, and appraising the performance of the paper. Most newspapers also recognize their responsibility to correct errors promptly, often in a box that appears in the same location in each issue.

Of course, a newspaper may endorse the highest standards of ethical conduct and still have its reputation sullied by the behavior of some of its staff members. Arrogance and contempt for the rights of others are one of the surest ways to bring this about. Newspapers need to guard against undue intrusions on the privacy of persons about whom they are reporting. A photograph of a person jumping off a building or plunging into a fire may be dramatic, but editors ought to debate long and hard over whether they are violating someone's rights or dignity by publishing it. Does the publication serve a defensible purpose, one that will be understood by readers? Or is it using an indignity to pander to curiosity?

Reporters enjoy no special rights beyond those of other citizens. They must be aggressive in pursuing facts. Indeed, one of the most important functions of a free press is to serve as a watchdog. But its staff members have no dispensation to be rude or discourteous. Television has many sins of its own, but one thing it purveys very quickly to viewers is whether reporters at a news conference are behaving arrogantly or with unnecessary brusqueness. Some, lamentably, seem to have become actors who view their function as making the news, not merely reporting it.

Apart from idiosyncratic behavior, newspapers also may be affected by a phenomenon that I call "prizemanship" -- the presentation of stories by a reporter or by a broader decision of newspaper management in a fashion calculated to win one of the prizes now offered to newspapers and to individual journalists. A few years ago, the Washington Post, my former employer, won a Pulitzer Prize for a story about an eight-year-old narcotics addict. Subsequent investigation by others led to an acknowledgment by the reporter that she had made up the story in order to illustrate a situation. She resigned, and the newspaper returned the prize in embarrassment. I have no doubt that there are similar fictional stories not identified. Even if you do not invent "facts," it is relatively easy to present them in such a way as to make a dramatic impression upon prize judges.

Prizes are not bad, but the best ones are those that are conferred by outsiders, without the knowledge or the participation of the journalist or newspaper. Conscientious journalists and newspapers must resist the temptation to display or doctor a story in such a way as to advance a purpose not directly related to the news.

There is one further precept in my own code of journalistic conduct -- beyond independence, noninvolvement, objectivity, fairness, and willingness to correct errors. That is a recognition of our own fallibility. Journalists have no special mandate from God, and a little humility on our part is much in order.

The truth sometimes has many sides. No one has a monopoly on it. Even in the dedicated pursuit of truth, error is frequent, and innocent persons may suffer. A cardinal journalistic sin, in my view, is that we journalists tend to take ourselves too seriously and have an inflated view of our own importance. Therefore, I should like to see posted above the desk of every member of the press the advice Oliver Cromwell gave to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."


Robert H. Estabrook, a former foreign correspondent with The Washington Post, is the editor and publisher emeritus of the Lakeville Journal, a weekly community newspaper in Connecticut.


The American Press

Constitutional Protection

The Right To Know

Editing the Washington Post

The Small-Town Newspaper

The Business Side of a Newspaper

Libel Law in the United States

Minorities in Journalism

Targeting an Audience

The Electronic Media

The Sweet Sound of Conflict

The Business of Radio Broadcasting

On the Air in Springville

The High-Tech Trib

Electronic Newspapers

The Center for Foreign Journalists

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