Jim Lehrer’s 16 Rules for Practicing Journalism with Integrity

In 1988, stal­wart PBS news anchor, writer, and long­time pres­i­den­tial debate mod­er­a­tor Jim Lehrer was accused of being too soft on the can­di­dates. He snapped back, “If some­body wants to be enter­tained, they ought to go to the cir­cus.” The folksy quote sums up the Tex­an jour­nal­ist’s phi­los­o­phy suc­cinct­ly. The news was a seri­ous busi­ness. But Lehrer, who passed away last Thurs­day, wit­nessed the dis­tinc­tion between polit­i­cal jour­nal­ism and the cir­cus col­lapse, with the spread of cable info­tain­ment, and cor­po­rate dom­i­na­tion of the Inter­net and radio.

Kot­tke remarks that Lehrer seemed “like one of the last of a breed of jour­nal­ist who took seri­ous­ly the integri­ty of inform­ing the Amer­i­can pub­lic about impor­tant events.” He con­tin­u­al­ly refused offers from the major net­works, host­ing PBS’s Mac­Neil-Lehrer New­shour with cohost Robert Mac­Neil until 1995, then his own in-depth news hour until his retire­ment in 2011. “I have an old-fash­ioned view that news is not a com­mod­i­ty,” he said. “News is infor­ma­tion that’s required in a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety… That sounds corny, but I don’t care whether it sounds corny or not. It’s the truth.”

To meet such high stan­dards required a rig­or­ous set of jour­nal­is­tic… well, standards—such as Lehrer was hap­py to list, below, in a 1997 report from the Aspen Insti­tute.

  1. Do noth­ing I can­not defend.*
  2. Do not dis­tort, lie, slant, or hype.
  3. Do not fal­si­fy facts or make up quotes.
  4. Cov­er, write, and present every sto­ry with the care I would want if the sto­ry were about me.*
  5. Assume there is at least one oth­er side or ver­sion to every sto­ry.*
  6. Assume the view­er is as smart and car­ing and good a per­son as I am.*
  7. Assume the same about all peo­ple on whom I report.*
  8. Assume every­one is inno­cent until proven guilty.
  9. Assume per­son­al lives are a pri­vate mat­ter until a legit­i­mate turn in the sto­ry man­dates oth­er­wise.*
  10. Care­ful­ly sep­a­rate opin­ion and analy­sis from straight news sto­ries and clear­ly label them as such.*
  11. Do not use anony­mous sources or blind quotes except on rare and mon­u­men­tal occa­sions. No one should ever be allowed to attack anoth­er anony­mous­ly.*
  12. Do not broad­cast pro­fan­i­ty or the end result of vio­lence unless it is an inte­gral and nec­es­sary part of the sto­ry and/or cru­cial to under­stand­ing the sto­ry.
  13. Acknowl­edge that objec­tiv­i­ty may be impos­si­ble but fair­ness nev­er is.
  14. Jour­nal­ists who are reck­less with facts and rep­u­ta­tions should be dis­ci­plined by their employ­ers.
  15. My view­ers have a right to know what prin­ci­ples guide my work and the process I use in their prac­tice.
  16. I am not in the enter­tain­ment busi­ness.*

In a 2006 Har­vard com­mence­ment address (at the top), Lehrer reduced the list to only the nine rules marked by aster­isks above by Kot­tke, who goes on to explain in short why these guide­lines are so rou­tine­ly cast aside—“this shit takes time! And time is mon­ey.” It’s eas­i­er to patch togeth­er sto­ries in rapid-fire order when you don’t cite or check sources or do inves­tiga­tive report­ing, and face no seri­ous con­se­quences for it.

Lehrer’s adher­ence to pro­fes­sion­al ethics may have been unique in any era, but his atten­tion to detail and obses­sion with access­ing mul­ti­ple points of view came from an old­er media. He “saw him­self as ‘a print/word per­son at heart’ and his pro­gram as a kind of news­pa­per for tele­vi­sion,” writes Robert McFad­den in his New York Times obit­u­ary. He was also “an oasis of civil­i­ty in a news media that thrived on excit­ed head­lines, gotcha ques­tions and noisy con­fronta­tions.”

Lehrer under­stood that civil­i­ty is mean­ing­less in the absence of truth, or of kind­ness and humil­i­ty. His long­time cohost’s list of jour­nal­is­tic guide­lines also appears in the Aspen Insti­tute report. “The val­ues which Jim Lehrer and I observed,” Mac­Neil writes, “he con­tin­ues to observe.” Jour­nal­ism is a seri­ous business—“behave with civility”—but “remem­ber that jour­nal­ists are no more impor­tant to soci­ety than peo­ple in oth­er pro­fes­sions. Avoid macho pos­tur­ing and arro­gant dis­play.”

Read more about Lehrer’s list of guide­lines at Kot­tke.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jour­nal­ism Under Siege: A Free Course from Stan­ford Explores the Imper­iled Free­dom of the Press

Jour­nal­is­tic Ethics: A Free Online Course from UCLA 

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Dennis Davis says:

    He must have died dis­ap­point­ed with the cur­rent state of Jour­nal­ism .
    Jour­nal­ism could once be summed up as “You weren’t there, I was, here’s what I saw hap­pen.”
    Now it is shame­ful (or shame­less, I can’t decide which) advance­ment of per­son­al agen­das and push­ing self-aggran­diz­ing influ­ence rather than self-deny­ing inform­ing.
    Do they even teach the 5 W’s in Jour­nal­ism school any­more?
    There isn’t much evi­dence.

  • Tony says:

    When they hit the sec­tion on integri­ty and ethics in J‑school, the stu­dents rely on the old Mony Python line, “Wink wink nudge nudge, say no more, say no more.” That’s if they even decide to attend that par­tic­u­lar ses­sion.

  • Jim says:

    Sure­ly the edi­tors and own­er of media out­lets are a big­ger part of the prob­lem.
    They all claim to uphold eth­i­cal report­ing but resort to what­ev­er it takes to keep up rat­ings and cir­cu­la­tion.
    Their cov­er­age of the impeach­ment cir­cus is a fleet­ing excep­tion that may lead to change if Trump is reelect­ed with more votes that in 2016.

  • Lonnie says:

    The media isn’t the prob­lem, peo­ple are. The media is only giv­ing us what we want. Peo­ple want the Kar­dashi­ans, not the Mid­dle East. More peo­ple know the names of Kanye’s babies than the name of the leader of Iraq.
    The pop­u­la­tion would rather be enter­tained than informed. We will pay for that in the long run.

  • Deborah says:

    Just as MDs recite the Hip­po­crat­ic Oath, Jim Lehrer’s list should become the Jour­nal­is­tic Oath. It should be required to be recit­ed by all involved in col­lect­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing the news.

  • Geraldine Comiskey says:

    It is shock­ing that these rules even have to be stat­ed. They are the basics. When I start­ed in jour­nal­ism more than 30 years ago, we did­n’t need any­one to tell us that it was wrong to make up quotes — it would­n’t have entered our heads! I would, how­ev­er, like to add one more rule: Don’t regur­gi­tate social media posts in the press; leave them on Twit­ter etc where they belong.

  • Prospector says:

    “Free­dom is the right to tell peo­ple what they do not want to hear.”
    — George Orwell

  • Don R. says:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, In the last 10 years or so, the great­est threat to Amer­i­ca has been Jour­nal­ism. It has divid­ed this coun­try and des­o­lat­ed our trust.

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