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 NPR “There 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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