Readers are the ultimate judges

Published 5:30 pm Wednesday, May 28, 2003

By By BILL CRIST - Publisher
When Howell Raines took over the newsroom at the New York Times in September 2001, the story was about an Alabama native who had risen to the top ranks at the world's most powerful and respected newspaper.
In the days following his taking the helm, New York's World Trade Center was destroyed in a terrorist attack. The Times led the way in covering the attacks, and was recognized with numerous Pulitzer Prizes, our industry's top recognition.
Two weeks ago, the tower began to crumble, though, amid rumors that one of the paper's rising stars, a reporter named Jayson Blair, had written many stories that included fabricated, false and plagiarized information. According to news reports, Blair filed stories containing interviews with families living in cities he had not visited. Quotes were suspected to have been taken from other news sources, such as the Associated Press.
But Blair isn't the first to commit these cardinal journalistic crimes. He is just the latest in a seemingly growing group of journalists who have become the story, for not actually covering one. There was the Washington Post's Janet Cooke and her 1980 story about an 8-year-old heroine addict who was a figment of Cooke's imagination. And Mike Barnicle's resignation from the Boston Globe in 1998 amid allegations that he made up sources and stole information from other writers. Print journalism is fighting increased competition from broadcast media and the Internet, and it seems to be shooting itself in the foot along the way to the trenches.
These stories, and many of the headline-grabbing scandals of this nature, tend to come out of larger metropolitan newspapers. That is not to say that smaller, community newspapers across the country are free from the problem of plagiarism, questionable sources and other integrity issues. However, I would imagine that in smaller communities, where readers tend to know the subjects of stories, and in many cases know more about the story being reported than the reporter, it is harder to get away with making up information.
Earlier this week, the Alabama Press Association released the results of its annual Better Newspaper Contest. For the third year in a row, The Brewton Standard made a good showing, finishing second in overall General Excellence in our category. And while the judges of the contest would not know if we'd been making up quotes and sources for our stories, you our readers would have. And undoubtedly, you would have let us know about our mistakes.
Newspapers play a unique role in a town or city, particularly community newspapers such as The Standard. It's our responsibility to report on the actions of our elected officials, explain to readers how the system works, talk about what's going on at the schools and in civic groups. Newspapers generally have the public's trust, having earned it over the years with honest reporting. It is only by having the community's well-being at the heart of everything we do that newspapers can continue to play a vital role in our society.
In the opinion of others in our profession, The Brewton Standard appears to be filling that role with some success. Some papers set their goals and guidelines to perform well in contests, and use them as a measuring stick for how they are serving their communities.
That's not enough, though. The opinions that matter, the ultimate judgement of our value in a community, are those of our readers. Through their readership, they send a strong message to let us know what kind of job we're doing. No award can make up for a loss of reader confidence. The Standard may have plaques to hang on its office walls, Raines may have Pulitzers to show off in his trophy cabinet, but without our readers, we would have nothing. Their trust is the hardest earned, but most appreciated, award a journalist can win.
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