A Journalist’s Dilemma: The Conundrum of Conscience

Much has been said and written recently about the role and importance of journalism and journalists – and the news media in general – to be truth tellers, to be the recorders and reporters of facts, even or especially when faced with “alternative facts” and demagogic attacks on the “dishonest media.”

So-called “fake news” and outright lies reinforce the prejudices of true believers and have too often gone unchallenged, especially on cable “news” but also in print.

That is beginning to change, thankfully, as even the talking heads who traffic in opinion as well as in facts have begun to call out the cynical purveyors of misinformation–and yes, I am suggesting motivation more than merely “playing loose” with the facts.

The top editor of The Wall Street Journal has come close to banning the word “lie” from news coverage, because, he wrote, it implies an intention we can only intuit. The New York Times has had fewer qualms about the use of the L word. I’m not sure this is just an argument over semantics. It seems to me there is more at stake.

This discussion has resonated with me as a veteran (okay, perhaps even a senior) journalist, in the way I approach my work and in the way I, as a citizen of conscience, may strongly feel. The two roles are not always in concert and may, in fact, often exist in a state of conflict.

Other than voting, I have routinely declined to sign petitions (sorry, Greenpeace, and others who come knocking on my door with their cause du jour), display political bumper stickers, and plant yard signs (except once, largely acquiescing to the special pleading of my resident offspring). I may rant at home (until my spouse demands I stop), but I am loathe to reveal my personal political leanings or beliefs because, well, I put myself forward as an objective unbiased reporter, and I want my work product to be respected as purely professional, not tainted as partisan.

But, at the same time, I am often outraged at the untruths (to use a nice little euphemism) I hear emanating from politicians in the public square. Is it an abdication of impartiality or an exercise in news judgment (an old-fashioned concept, I admit, but one in which I still believe) to call them out? More than ever today, Marshall McLuhan’s mantra rings true:  The medium is the message.  But with the media splintered into multiple platforms, the messages may tend to reinforce views divorced from facts.

As journalists who are also citizens of conscience, how do we/I confront and combat this?

Back in Hitler’s day, the repetition of “alternative facts” was branded The Big Lie (coined by Adolph Hitler himself, as a useful propaganda tool).  Insufficiently challenged, it seemed to work, and, as we know, it did not end well. So, to me, it all comes down to one question: Is it biased to defend the truth? At the risk of incurring official wrath, I think not.


  1. Ken Rossignol on January 25, 2017 at 6:25 am

    “Is it an abdication of impartiality or an exercise in news judgment (an old-fashioned concept, I admit, but one in which I still believe) to call them out?”

    This is exactly why people were ticked off over the “media” failing to hold the Obama Administration accountable for eight years and why few will pay any attention to the “media” as the long knives are drawn for Trump. If both sides don’t hate you, you haven’t done your job.

  2. John A Lally on January 25, 2017 at 7:40 am

    Nixon would have completed his term, Clinton would nave not been impeached, Gary Hart could have been President but for one mistake. Not an act or omission but because they lied. The public will accept all types of deviant behavior but the theft of their right to believe.

  3. B. D. Colen on January 25, 2017 at 9:05 am

    Excellent piece, Gene, and very much you. I’m not so sure about the idea of “impartiality,” and certainly have not for decades believed that there even is something called “objectivity” in any place other than the science lab. Rather, as I tell my students, we have an absolute obligation to always be aware of our own prejudices and “partialities,” and must do our best to shove them aside, and to be “fair,” if I may use a very old fashioned term. That said, we are living in a new old age – one that truly is a repeat of Germany and Italy in the 30s. I would go so far as to suggest that in some important ways our democracy finally has broken down, and because of the dying over the past 30 – 50? – years of our public education system, and unashamed lying over the past two decades by those on the right, we are now entering a period of government the likes of which we have never lived through before. For those in power to remain in power, and to achieve their goals, they have lied, and will continue to lie, about things seemingly meaningless – how many people showed up to witness an inauguration, and things enormous – what and who does or does not threaten our Republic. Faced with that reality, it seems to me that we as journalists, in order to be “fair,” in order to sustain the Republic, are required to use the word “lie” when we hear lies, for to do anything else is, in fact, to lie. Finally, this past Saturday, while photographing the Women’s March in New York City – and regardless of what the White House may say, there were a good 300,000 to 400,000 participants, I saw a young teenage girl leaning against a building, taking a break, holding a sign which read, “journalism is not necessary for democracy, it IS democracy. Something to think about.

    • Gene Meyer on January 25, 2017 at 9:46 am

      Agree. These are indeed unprecedented difficult times. The denigration of fact-based education, especially in history and government (what used to be called “civics”), has been pernicious and contributed to the precarious state of our democracy. And, as Thomas Jefferson said: “If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” Regrettably, that is no longer the case. A public cannot be “informed” by 140-character tweets, FB rants (present company excepted, of course!) or pick-your-prejudice “news” outlets.

  4. Paul J Guglielmino on January 25, 2017 at 9:10 am

    Journalists are the guardians of truth in my estimation. They play a vital role in a free society.

    Individual political views expressed or inferred by a journalist in his or her reporting, just diminishes the reputation of that journalist in my opinion, unless the writing is clearly identified as an Editorial.

    If a journalist persists in projecting his or her political views in presenting “the truth” the reputation and value of that writer will ultimately be destroyed.

  5. Tim Ayers on January 25, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Thoughtful piece, Gene. Last night I read the following in Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson”

    The transaction between a potential president and the people is often as much about the heart as it is about the mind. “The large masses act in politics pretty much as they do in religion,” a Democratic senator said in the Jackson years. “Every doctrine is with them, more or less, a matter of faith received principally on account of their trust in the apostle.”

    I found that to be a particularly depressing observation, but probably true.

    • Gene Meyer on January 25, 2017 at 4:33 pm

      Supposedly, that’s why the founders created the Electoral College, to keep the masses, stirred by demagoguery, from electing a despot. But clearly it’s not working as originally intended, as the electors exercise no independent judgment.

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