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article imageAssociated Press Endorses 'Accountability Journalism'

By Susan Duclos     Jul 14, 2008 in Business
Op-eds are old news and neutrality and equal treatment to all sides of an issue aren't what journalism should be about, AP believes. Will the opinion editorial category disappear under the new rules?
The journalistic ethics of old do not apply to the new guidelines over at the Associated Press. The new ethics are called “accountability journalism,” and the new bureau chief, Ron Fournier, believes that the conventional press model, where both sides of an argument are entitled to equal weight, is exactly what journalists need to avoid.
Fournier believes those old journalistic ethics are what stops reporters from telling the truth as they see it.
The Society of Professional Journalists has the code of ethics here and the ones listed below are the ones that Fournier seems to take issue with.
**Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
**Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
**Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
**Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Fournier's predecessor, Sandy Johnson, wonders if Fournier's new brand of journalism is going to help the AP or destroy it? Granted he replaced her what is described as a "hard-feelings shake-up" in May, but his own ideology on journalism gives credence to her question.
The new boss feels that first-person writing and emotive language is acceptable to news reporting instead of being reserved for opinion editorials, he calls it, "cutting through the clutter.”
So is scrapping the stone-faced approach to journalism that accepts politicians’ statements at face value and offers equal treatment to all sides of an argument. Instead, reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers.
Before Fournier took over the job as bureau chief, he himself wrote pieces which are being referred to as a "model" of the new brand of journalism he is encouraging from the AP writers.
One piece was titled, "Obama is bordering on arrogance", and was written as straight news, not opinion, despite the opinion that is explicit in the headline itself.
A frequent critic of AP and especially this new brand of “accountability journalism", is James Taranto, the Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web columnist, who says, "The problem is that while you can do opinion journalism and incorporate reporting into it, you can’t say you’re doing straight reporting, and then add opinion to that.”
In an AP internal newsletter dated June 1, 2007, Jim Romenesko wrote, "It's AP's goal this year (and henceforth) to make this accountability journalism a consistent theme in our coverage of public affairs, politics and government."
In that newsletter he supplied an essay written by Ron Fournier, who would later become the new bureau chief, for "expert advice on accountability journalism".
In that essay, a portion sticks out where it says:
Don't give equal weight to spin. Just because a public official says it doesn't mean you need to put it in your story or give his claim equal billing to what you know to be true. We have an obligation to write factual and fair stories, but we are not obliged to print attacks, spin or distortion under the cover of "fair comment."
This brings up the question of who determines what "spin", "distortion" and "fair comment" is?
Using Digital and the writers and editorial staff as an example, would this mean that if the title of this piece had an opinion in the headline, such as "AP's dangerous practice of rewriting the Journalism code of ethics", naturally and the DJ staff can correct this analysis if it is wrong, but in all probability by using the word dangerous in the title, which would be an "opinion", they would agree with my labeling this piece as opinion had I done so.
Taking it a step further, if the DJ staff agreed that it was a dangerous practice, then according to the AP's "accountability journalism", then an explanation of why the AP officials considers it a good practice would not be needed for the sake of fairness and balance in the article itself and the article would not need the label opinion if the word "dangerous" were used in the headline.
Is this a slippery slope where journalism becomes not an outlet for news, but becomes an interpretation of said news?
“I think there’s mixed feelings — there’s reluctance,” said an AP staffer. “The AP has always been a just-the-facts type of organization,” the staffer added, where even star political reporters typically play a more behind-the-scenes role than those at other papers. And it was Johnson who hired the majority of reporters in Washington, meaning they’re now following not just a new leader but a new agenda.
This has also brought up issues for other news outlets that use the AP's stories, such as Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where Fournier worked as a reporter in the 1980s, and according to managing editor , David Bailey, he says the AP tries "to do more with dazzle and footwork these days than [stories] with real substance", and continues on to explain why his paper has an active wire desk to vet and edit the copy, and he continues with, "We almost never run an AP story as we get it on the front of the paper."
Still, he concludes by showing support for Fournier, by stating, "if the AP is smart enough to listen to what Ron will say, the AP will improve dramatically.”
Some of the examples listed using Fournier's "“accountability journalism" being used by the AP, includes one article that Beth Fouhy wrote, where she used the first-person style of writing and started with her opinion, saying "I miss Hillary".
Another example listed at the end of the piece where a reporter, Liz Sidoti, wrote a piece on June 19, 2008, and titled it, "Barack Obama chose winning over his word".
Fournier comments on that piece, not labeled opinion by saying, "But boy, when we can cut through the clutter, and we can say ‘Barack Obama put politics over his word' which he did — that’s a fact. He did. He may not like the way Liz wrote it, but it is a statement of fact.”
In reading many opinion editorials, (Examples of those articles at the link provided)labeled as such, many people agreed with Sidoti's title and her piece, but those other editorials made it very clear that was their opinion by publishing their pieces as opinion editorials, unlike the AP did with Sidoti's piece.
Another potential problem stemming from this new brand of journalistic ethics, is how to report on a story that the Associated Press originally wrote using Fournier's new style.
If the AP headlines with a opinion driven title, does that automatically make it acceptable for those using the AP as a source to use that opinion in their headlines without qualifying the piece as an Op-Ed?
More about Associated press, Accountability journalism, Media
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