Damn The Canons

He’d lost a lot of jobs, especially at first. When he bucked at what he considered a shit assignment, the editor told him an abrasive manner did not suit a cub reporter and fired him on the spot.

After that he’d drifted around freelance for some years until he’d finally had enough.

He moved to a big city and took a job as a stringer. He stuck it out. He worked his way up through crime and city government, did a stint on late-edition rewrite until finally he’d had the luck to land a few great stories and win a few awards.

Those days, most people got all their news from one newspaper, or maybe two. You had a responsibility to the truth, to act independently, to minimize harm.

It was a sacred charge, the fourth estate.

You became an eyewitness to what was really happening.

But none of it mattered now, not even grammar.  Nobody cared about anything but money.


What Pegman Saw: Rawson Lake

The Canons of Journalism from the American Society of Newspaper Editors (1923)

The primary function of newspapers is to communicate to the human race what its members do, feel and think. Journalism, therefore, demands of its practitioners the widest range of intelligence, or knowledge, and of experience, as well as natural and trained powers of observation and reasoning. To its opportunities as a chronicle are indissolubly linked its obligations as teacher and interpreter.

To the end of finding some means of codifying sound practice and just aspirations of American journalism, these canons are set forth:

I. RESPONSIBILITY: The right of a newspaper to attract and hold readers is restricted by nothing but considerations of public welfare. The use a newspaper makes of the share of public attention it gains serves to determine its sense of responsibility, which it shares with every member of its staff. A journalist who uses his power for any selfish or otherwise unworthy purpose is faithless to a high trust.

II. FREEDOM OF THE PRESS: Freedom of the press is to be guarded as a vital right of mankind. It is the unquestionable right to discuss whatever is not explicitly forbidden by law, including the wisdom of any restrictive statute.

III. INDEPENDENCE: Freedom from all obligations except that of fidelity to the public interest is vital.

1. Promotion of any private interest contrary to the general welfare, for whatever reason, is not compatible with honest journalism. So-called news communications from private sources should not be published without public notice of their source or else substantiation of their claims to value as news, both in form and substance.

2. Partisanship, in editorial comment which knowingly departs from the truth, does violence to the best spirit of American journalism; in the news columns it is subversive of a fundamental principle of the profession.

IV. SINCERITY, TRUTHFULNESS, ACCURACY: Good faith with the reader is the foundation of all journalism worthy of the name.

1. By every consideration of good faith a newspaper is constrained to be truthful. It is not to be excused for lack of thoroughness or accuracy within its control, or failure to obtain command of these essential qualities.

2. Headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles which they surmount.

V. IMPARTIALITY: Sound practice makes clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion. News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.

1. This rule does not apply to so-called special articles unmistakably devoted to advocacy or characterized by a signature authorizing the writer’s own conclusions and interpretation.

VI. FAIR PLAY: A newspaper should not publish unofficial charges affecting reputation or moral character without opportunity given to the accused to be heard right practice demands the giving of such opportunity in all cases of serious accusation outside judicial proceedings.

1. A newspaper should not involve private rights or feeling without sure warrant of public right as distinguished from public curiosity.

2. It is the privilege, as it is the duty, of a newspaper to make prompt and complete correction of its own serious mistakes of fact or opinion, whatever their origin.

DECENCY: A newspaper cannot escape conviction of insincerity if while professing high moral purpose it supplies incentives to base conduct, such as are to be found in details of crime and vice, publication of which is not demonstrably for the general good- Lacking authority to enforce its canons the journalism here represented can but express the hope that deliberate pandering to vicious instincts will encounter effective public disapproval or yield to the influence of a preponderant professional condemnation.


Add Yours
  1. Ray Oram

    All that click-clacking yakkity-yak dont mean nothin’ no more. Just friggin emptiness. The gossiping and the talk talk talk, jus’ don’t add up.
    That guy, he had a cause, somethin to live for, cause he believed but it went away!
    Just because of convenience. Dang enviro- mentalists!

  2. Joy Pixley

    A tragic character arc, and probably all too common in that field these days – to build himself up higher and higher over time, committing more every day to the institution and its values, only to become cynical that nobody values that hard work and sincerity and commitment to truth and decency anymore. (Of course that’s not true: some of us value it even more, now that it is in shorter supply.)

  3. Dale

    You enter into something, ready to fight the good fight, share the truth, be a voice… and for what in today’s world? I like the sneaky addition of your ending in your comment to Karen ;-) Appropriate ending, for sure!

    And I can’t believe I read the whole Canons of Journalism text…

  4. Jelli

    And the old “if it bleeds’ theory is what really turned me off of following a career in journalism. I did not see the glory in people dying, but in the living and the joy of that living….and that, was what I truly wanted to write. Then, I met Stephen King…

  5. prior..

    loved this on at least three levels.
    First – just for the succinct build of the story –
    second, the masterful words fell so seamlessly in my mind that almost slips happened – like this:

    “took a job as a stringer. He stuck it out.”
    I then added – yeah, he “strung” it out – and that shows interaction and demos how a piece comes alive!

    However, not to get side-tracked in a fiction piece because clear, crisp writing allows one to meander for a second and then get back easily into the piece (I say this after blog reading this weekend and finding wonderful folks – but they were often verbose and as much as I Iov’em – their writing was sometimes like pulling out grizzle after every bite and so this here writing is like melting bites of filet mignon-
    and third –
    the wellness message at the heart – whew – nice FF

  6. 4963andypop

    Nice title, like “Damn the torpedoes, ” with a nice pun on replacing the weapon of the cannon with the journalist’s weapon of his canons of ethics.

    I am not quite as cynical. I think journalism has bounced back quite a bit since the subservient ueberpatriotic days right after 9/11 (can you tell i just saw a plug for Rob Reiners’s new film, “Shock and Awe”). And the result of good journalism is that there’s pushback.

    This story reads something like an obituary, a well-written one. He is mourning the death of an ideal. I like the language “sacred charge.”

    I don’t think it is too much of a diatribe to include this in a story–i think it is a wonderful setup for a story in which a downcast hero regains his faith in an eternal ideal.

    And by the way i copied the canon in its entirety and plan go share it anywhere i have a chance.

  7. Lynn Love

    It’s certainly sad to read this tale – and the canons – in light of much modern journalism, certainly in the UK at least. So many papers are tabloids trading on the fear of foreigners, the fear of liberalism and that it can damage the country. Extreme agendas published in papers owned by billionaire businessmen – exactly what you don’t want a newspaper to be.
    Well written and a sad but telling point you make there Josh

  8. Anonymous

    Hi / I left a comment but do not see it here – glad I checked (it evaporated)
    And love the realistic journey you brought us on with little nuggets… like

    “Not even grammar”


Don't just stand there.