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

ruin broken hippocratic oath

Introduction

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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2 Replies to “Pledge to Tell the Truth: Hippocratic Oath for Nonfiction Writers?”

  1. […] Pledge to Tell the Truth: Hip­po­crat­ic Oath for Non­fic­tion Writers? […]

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