Editor's note: The original version of this column was published Dec. 28, 2013.
It's interesting in this craft of publishing facts and opinions how printed words carry so much power and potential.
It wasn't an idle misstatement by Napoleon Bonaparte when he claimed to fear four hostile newspapers more than 1,000 bayonets. Yet it also isn't a stretch to say one newspaper dedicated to the principles of truth and fairness can promote many needed reforms, identify the guilty and set the innocent free.
That's why, if honor and credibility are of concern in news reporting, this craft demands we refrain from causing damage to others through casting them in false light through innuendo, partial and ignored facts, or personal agendas.
Readers crave credibility. They seek people and sources of information they've learned through experience to trust. The Internet has transformed many uninformed ax-grinders into those who perceive their newfound voice as some kind of mandate to spread venom, regardless of facts.
Unfortunately, I also see too much of the same kind of vendettas and incomplete reporting in the so-called mainstream media today.
There are instances where relevant facts are twisted or omitted altogether from news stories that readers must rely upon for factual information. For instance, if two people agree one thing supposedly occurred while five others contradict their version, should I omit the five contradictions to report only the two agreed-upon versions, one of which is incomplete? Not if I'm to live with myself and expect to be taken seriously by the populace.
One subjective word inserted into a sentence also can make a huge difference. I've even seen editors change a reporter's story to make it misleading or erroneous. I once had my byline removed from a story in Chicago. The editor had replaced facts with his unfounded biases. Such flagrant malpractice goes on far too often when it should never be tolerated.
Most readers willing to pay for newspapers are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions if the facts are laid out fairly. They certainly don't need a journalist trying to manipulate their opinion by only presenting partial information. They also can detect when news stories are obviously slanted or designed to demonize rather than fairly inform. Few are fooled for long.
Still, the result of partial or slanted reporting can lead some trusting readers to mistaken conclusions.
This is the sort of thing I once regularly discussed during five years of Fridays with individual classes of top professional print and broadcast reporters. Each veteran journalist was competitively chosen to become journalism master's degree candidates in the year-long Kiplinger fellowship program at Ohio State.
One question always set the tone each fall: Are readers and viewers better off by our not reporting a story if we can't acquire all the relevant facts available and report them fairly? What irreparable damage can we do to others in possibly misleading them about the truth by providing only partial or slanted facts?
At this stage in my career, I regularly share opinions. Hopefully, valued readers understand that what I write contains expressions of my beliefs at that point in time. Like you, I also have acquaintances, friends and those I've learned to mistrust for valid reasons.
My opinion might change entirely as new facts emerge. This means I should always be willing to admit previous errors in judgment. No longer do I feel constrained by the discipline of news reporting, yet neither do I still have the luxury of having full pages to reveal all those facts uncovered through long-term investigations.
Readers should realize that I base my views on what I believe to be true. In the freedom to express myself, I also expect many who read my words to disagree, either in part or whole.
It's a different story altogether in reporting the news of the day in a fair manner. What would you think if you learned I'd intentionally omitted highly relevant facts in a news story about problems in a police department that cast a different light on what I had been reporting for months? You'd understandably cast a wary eye on whatever else I published on that topic, probably choosing instead to believe I was pushing a vendetta against the police.
Yet this is the kind of unjustifiable demonization I see happening in my craft today.
In my decades serving several roles from newsroom management to hard-core reporting in places where the good ol' boys play hardball as hard as it gets (my predecessor in Phoenix was murdered), I believe I've earned the standing to make this observation. I'm far from being anywhere near the ideal newspaper person. Regrettably, I've had more than my share of mistakes, poor judgments, shortcomings and biases since beginning in 1971.
Still, I feel sad when I watch my craft steadily sinking beneath the standards of facts and fair play that always should exist in news reporting.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.