Journalism: The eyes, ears and nose of democracy

A wise old editor introducing a fresh crop of summer interns to the world of news reporting set these ground rules: "You will be sent to cover a traffic accident, and you will interview several witnesses. They will each tell you what they saw. Their versions will not match. Your assignment is to report accurately what happened."

Reporting accurately what happened is never simple. It gets tougher with each added variable: When the information is old or secondhand, when the source is questionable or unknown, when the motivations of a tipster are suspect.

Every shadow of doubt cast on the alleged facts is another reason to slow down before publishing. But the raison d'être of a free press in a democracy is the presumption that the public has the right and the need to know about issues that affect the common good, including the suitability of a leader to lead.

Editors send reporters and photographers to find out what the story really is. The default premise is to publish unless the facts remain unclear or unverifiable; or if publication would do serious harm in specific categories such as national security or the privacy of sexual assault victim; or if the matter turns out not to be newsworthy. Often the facts turn out not as first thought — the alleged gunshots were just fireworks, for example.

The decision by the editors of the online publication BuzzFeed decided, as was their prerogative in a free country, to publish what allegedly amounts to a private eye's report on interactions by Donald J. Trump in Russia before he was elected president. Trump's political opponents were paying the private eye.

In doing so BuzzFeed diverged from most other media that had access to the document and, like BuzzFeed, were unable to verify the statements. BuzzFeed released online photos of the 35-page dossier, yellow highlighter and all, with the statement that it was unverified and in some details clearly erroneous.

Others, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, looked into the document's claims for weeks but, finding no substantiation, let it lie. The Day and many other publications have concurred with their decision.

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. Investigation may include interviews, paper trails, online searching, and vetting the claims of whistleblowers.

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: Is this newsworthy? Why? How do we know it? Have we substantiated it? How?

It's a pledge not always kept, certainly. Most news organizations decided that the dossier was allegation at best and maliciously false at worst. The editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, which describes itself as a "social news and entertainment" outlet, thought it should see the light of day.

Serious journalism is an imperfect art practiced by skeptical idealists and admitted obsessives. They never have all the answers. But they do have questions, always more questions, and democracy depends upon that dogged trait.

The spotlight shines on the public arena. Public figures are subject to a higher standard of scrutiny than others, and the courts have set a higher bar for a public figure to win a claim of libel.

Newsrooms large and small make decisions about publishing certain stories every day. Journalists operate on the same principles whether they are investigating alleged assignations in Moscow or alleged misbehavior by a local first selectman.

From its start, our great, long-lasting republic has featured a determined free press. It would be a dangerous mistake to try to curtail that freedom.

If it weren't for news gatherers, there would be only one version of any event, or no version at all. It would be like the traffic accident seen from only one corner by only one witness.

The Day strives to uphold the best practice of full and fair reporting, investigating a story till the facts are clear. Once they are, our readers are the first to know.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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