"The best obtainable version of the truth"

For those embarking on a journalism career, certain iconic figures stand out as role models.

Probably the most famous are Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for their investigative work on the break-in at the Watergate hotel and office building, a story that followed a money trail and unveiled a cover-up that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Since then, both Woodward and Bernstein have gone on to write numerous best sellers. Bernstein is also a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine. Recently, Bernstein was invited to speak at a public forum on journalism in Rome, a city he knows well from his days researching a book on Pope John Paul II.

During the forum, Bernstein said some things about journalism which provide a unique insight into the passion with which he has embraced his profession. His remarks offer useful lessons for those who are considering a career in the media, and also for consumers.

Talking about the shift of journalism from older models of media to the newer forms of communication, Bernstein reflected on the need to bring over the best of the old traditions. He defined good reporting as the process of communicating "the best obtainable version of the truth." A simple phrase, he said, yet "something very difficult to accomplish."

Bernstein went on to explain that in North America we seem to have created a "mythology" about media objectivity. According to Bernstein, reporting is not objective, but instead is "the most subjective of activities." This is because journalists and editors themselves decide what is news and what is not. Reporters collect facts and string them together to provide context. He stressed the need to do thorough research and present the facts in a responsible manner.

Bernstein has been at it a long time. He started working as a journalist in 1960 at the age of 16. Asked to share his thoughts about the profession, he offered this summary, on looking back:

What is we do? We're not here to be prosecutors. That's for prosecutors. We're not here to change the results of an election. We're here to present information about how we live and how our fellows live. We're here to describe our community, our government, our sports, our entertainment -- always with the idea of this best obtainable version of the truth, so that those who read us, see us on television, on the web, put their trust in what we do and learn which of us is worthy of that trust, which institution is worthy of that trust, which individual reporters are worthy of that trust, so that we can help people know things.

That's really all our job is: to help people know things, so they can make up their minds about what's around them. It's very simple. [But] it's probably the hardest thing you can do because there are so many ways to get it wrong, to take shortcuts. The bad part of the web is the pressure on us time-wise, to get it out there right away, right away, right away... without checking it out, without trying to see how one fact weighs against another and putting it into context."

I would say, particularly in the informational cacophony that we have today, that if I were a young person and I could do anything, this is what I would do.

Bernstein may inspire a new generation of journalists to rise above all the noise and make difference.

Photo credit:
Image by Larry D. Moore, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License. More info here.

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