Pledge to Tell the Truth: Hippocratic Oath for Nonfiction Writers?

ruin broken hippocratic oath


A recent TED talk sugges­ted that the news industry is broken. Also, journ­al­ists should be required to take a form of Hippocratic Oath before report­ing news. This viewpoint, shared by at least 2 journ­al­ists:

  • Guardian journ­al­ist George Monbiot in 2011 when discus­sion the question of how the news industry inter­feres with the polit­ic­al process, partic­u­larly in the UK and USA.
  • Former Middle-East corres­pond­ent for ABC News, Lara Setrakian, creat­or of website News Deeply. She identi­fied, in 2017, the need for “a kind of Hippocratic oath for the news industry, a pledge to first do no harm”

To some extent blogs are now a part of the news industry. Some are great sources of citizen journ­al­ism. It is the very idea behind the Huffington Post, Mashable and many other sites. Earlier this year I published, on Two Drops of Ink, my views on the nonfic­tion contract. We, as writers owe a duty to tell the truth in what we write. This should apply equally, to bloggers and journ­al­ists alike

News — A Broken Industry?

Broken newsDuring the 1980s and 90s I used to have a newspa­per delivered through my door every morning. Today I buy a newspa­per once a year. What changed? The rise of the Internet and the rise of blogs is not the only cause of the collapse of the news industry. The quality of report­ing for the tabloids was always very low, this was an accep­ted fact. But the stand­ards of report­ing for quality journ­als have been stead­ily falling.

One day a group of colleagues realised that the quality of report­ing on all newspa­pers had reached an all time low. One evening a group us had visited a restaur­ant and bar downtown. As we exited we witnessed something happen­ing in the street.

The follow­ing morning this was repor­ted in all the nation­al newspa­pers. When we arrived in at work a group of us met in the canteen to chew the fat over the morning coffee. Of course, the hot topic was the previ­ous nights events. Someone who had not been there made a remark repeat­ing something said in the newspa­per. We were stunned. It turned out the reports in each of the papers (even the so-called quality ones) were a fabric­a­tion. A bending of the truth, designed to sell newspa­pers. For that group, it was the morning that all trust in the news industry evapor­ated.

Pledge to Tell the Truth

I agree that every person involved in the writing of nonfic­tion has a duty to tell the truth. I accept that there are times when writers may only see some of the facts and could get a skewed version of the truth. Interview 15 people and you will get 15 differ­ent versions of what happened but there will be some core elements of a story will remain. According to Errol Morris of NPRThere is such a thing as truth, but we often have a vested interest in ignor­ing it or outright denying it… Truth is not relat­ive. It’s not subject­ive. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disreg­ard it. But there is such a thing as truth and the pursuit of truth.”

Trying to figure out what happened can be tough. “The vast major­ity of crimes, have no witnesses other than the crimin­al who perpet­rated the act.” The opening state­ment I remem­ber from the first Criminal Law lecture I atten­ded. Even where there are witnesses they will each tell a differ­ent story about what happened. Its not that they are each lying. Each will inter­pret what they saw based on their own perspect­ive and their own moral code. This why you get 15 differ­ent stories.

Unless writers dig deep, ask the right questions, to try and find the story behind the story they will often fall short of telling the real story.

Email Me”

emailA recent advert­ising campaign by one of our newspa­pers, is sympto­mat­ic of the state of the news industry today. In the TV advert one of the journ­al­ists for the paper asks people to email them if they have a story to share, giving their email address at the end of the advert. Is this sympto­mat­ic of a decline in journ­al­ism? I believe it is.

Of course some histor­ic­al news stories have started form phone calls or letters by the gener­al public. Generally, journ­al­ists developed their own sources, or had their finger on the pulse of what was happen­ing in their area. For example, they would often arrive at a crime scene before the police. Twitter and social media is more often where the pulse of events occur over the past few years.

I doubt I would email these report­ers if I witnessed break­ing news. More likely I would record a video (if possible) then post what I saw here on this blog, then publi­cise that via social media. Emailing them once I published that news report may be done as an after­thought.

Pledge to First do no Harm

The idea of the pledge to do no harm is the central pillar of the medic­al, Hippocratic Oath, that all doctors take. Yet the role of a writer is differ­ent.

According to The Day “the first pledge a free press makes to the public is to be its eyes, ears and nose — to sniff out and suss out import­ant matters on their behalf.” I agree, this is one of the primary roles of the news industry. To some extent journ­al­ists seem to have lost this key skill, one prime example here is “Email Me”, above. This is a role bloggers are perform­ing well, because they look at what is happen­ing around them.

hippocratic oath - truth

This editor­i­al goes on to say “The second pledge of a free press is not — cannot be — to do no harm. Reporting may well ‘hurt’ scofflaws and just plain embar­rass people for icky behavi­or. The second pledge of respons­ible journ­al­ism is, rather, to stick to its principles for publish­ing.” As the eyes, ears and nose of the public, The Day is saying, that journ­al­ists have a duty to tell the story even if in embar­rasses high-profile individu­als. That is their Hippocratic Oath.

The view of The Day seems on the surface to differ from that of Lara Setrakian. She states “Journalists need to be tough. We need to speak truth to power, but we also need to be respons­ible.” In relation to respons­ib­il­ity she states “we need to recog­nize when what we’re doing could poten­tially harm society, where we lose track of journ­al­ism as a public service” and further “we have to resist the tempta­tion to use fear for ratings.” Her vision for a Hippocratic Oath for the news industry.

If there is a Hippocratic Oath for nonfic­tion writers it starts from a pledge to tell the truth as far as the writer can see it. Of course their own preju­dices impact their writing, this is a fact of life.

The Drive For Ratings

At the nub of the issue is a case of ratings. This is something that impacts bloggers as much as it does profes­sion­al journ­al­ists. In mention­ing the require­ments of a nonfic­tion contract which ensures writers base their stories on fact. It is still possible to write creat­ively, yet remain loyal to the facts discussed.

Hippocratic Oath - RatingsThe need for ratings, wheth­er that is to sell a million more newspa­pers, or to get 5 extra readers for your blog drives people to publish fantast­ic stories. If the facts are question­able what is published can never be a good story. Fear of something can become a driver for ratings. Indeed, it has driven more than one polit­ic­al campaign. It is better to seek to under­stand someone else than be driven by fear of them.

In 2015 Brian Williams, news anchor for NBC Nightly News was suspen­ded for a false claim. He had exagger­ated and lied in a news report 12 years earli­er. He may have jeopard­ised the trust in his viewers. This type of exagger­a­tion, is one of the areas Setrakian reports as a broken element of the news industry. Reporters refocus the story around themselves rather than those who are suffer­ing across the globe. The reason why they are in a war zone in the first place.

The Truth Can Harm

According to Nieman Reports “This first principle of journ­al­ism — its disin­ter­ested pursuit of truth.” It should also be one of the found­ing principles of blogging. When writers publish a story they should remain faith­ful to the nonfic­tion contract, report­ing the facts as they see them, nothing more.

There is room for inter­pret­a­tion as two people can see the same facts in two differ­ent ways. Yet there are also times when the truth becomes embar­rass­ing to certain people, the wrong­do­ers. Should the writer stop what they are writing? Many will because they feel a moral oblig­a­tion to “be nice” to others. Yet there is no reason to stop writing, wrong­do­ing should be exposed. There are times when embar­rass­ing someone can begin to right a wrong. The truth can harm that person, also telling the truth is neces­sary for the great­er good. This is especially true for polit­ic­al, religious, or business leaders, because of the influ­ence they excerpt. 

Yes the truth can harm. When writing a harmful truth the writer must be absolutely certain about their facts. Proving alleg­a­tions is of utmost import­ance. News organ­isa­tions are likely to have the funds to defend legal actions, but does your blog? I am not saying that you should not publish, that you must be on solid ground before you do.

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Buy Peter B. Giblett a coffee to thank him for question­ing the ethics of non-fiction writing and the need to obey a Hippocratic Oath.  This is an inter­est­ing question and I would love to hear your opinion via a comment. The images included here are from royalty free public domain image collec­tions, Pixabay, or from Peter Giblett’s collec­tion.

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