Journalism standards more crucial than before

By Editorial Board

Former NBC Nightly News lead anchor Brian Williams has been under fire in recent weeks for fabricating a war story. The allegations that he misconstrued an incident that occurred during his coverage of wartime in the Middle East has led to a six-month suspension without pay. He has since resigned from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s board and has been banned by NBC from making public appearances.

Williams’ downward spiral has been warranted. For whatever reason—and a multitude of them have been suggested by dozens of think pieces; he is an egomaniac, he wants to be the hero, he is overcompensating—Williams made the decision to mislead the general public by telling a tale that has only served to dig him into a hole he cannot easily climb out of. 

Williams is not alone in his need to tell a tale that paints him in a more heroic light, though. Bill O’Reilly has recently been scolded for padding a story more than 20 years ago about the Falklands War—it has been alleged that O’Reilly, like Williams, made false claims about wartime experiences.

The two situations are very different. Whereas Williams was the face of a news source many Americans trusted wholeheartedly, O’Reilly is a talking head who spouts more opinions than news to a very specific demographic. Nevertheless, both at some point in their careers have been considered journalists. However, the ethics every journalist should abide by seem to have been thrown to the wayside for both of these men in the name of self-aggrandizement.

Journalists—whether broadcast or print—should always be held to the highest standards of ethics by their editors and parent corporations. Ethics need to be more heavily considered in the reporting of news to the general public. Whether it is Fox News or NBC, Americans want to and do trust the news they choose to watch. 

Most Americans do not fact-check the news because such a task is not the responsibility of the citizen. It is the responsibility of a team of journalists and editors to go through stories with a fine-toothed comb in order to avoid major falsifications in reporting. An editor cannot stop a high-profile journalist with ego issues from lying outright, but if people are held to higher standards and a strict code of ethics from the beginning, these types of situations could potentially be avoided altogether. 

NBC made the right call in suspending Williams for this major indiscretion. Lying in the field of journalism not only cripples the integrity of the journalist, but also breaks the trust many journalists work years to develop with their audience. O’Reilly was not castigated by Fox News but lifted up by a public statement of undying support. Of course Williams and O’Reilly are certainly held to varying standards as their positions are definitively different—one reporting news, the other filtering news through a vitriolic screen of opinions and spitfire.

In turn, Americans have certain expectations for these men and their respective job posts. Williams was expected to deliver factual, in-depth news reports while O’Reilly is expected to deliver incendiary opinions couched in questionable news items. But when Williams actively chose to lie and alter his story, he effectively destroyed his integrity as a person Americans trusted to speak honestly on world events. Very little surprise or uproar has followed the accusations against O’Reilly because he is not trusted in the way Williams was. 

As the news industry continues to transform alongside evolving technology and media capabilities, journalists must ardently pursue truth in the face of the temptation to please producers and audiences. Journalists, editors and parent corporations should hold themselves to strict standards of ethics—such as those outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics—that are meant to keep them from stooping to the level of lying, unfounded speculation and baseless opinions.