Checking Facts Basic to Good Journalism

Mar 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Let’s see, I’ve been called a hooker on national TV, a phony by a large Ohio newspaper and an actress by the newspaper that prides itself in having “all the news that’s fit to print.” Yet if the truth had been accurately reported, these are boldfaced lies promulgated by journalists who violated one of the basic rules of their trade: Check your facts.
I’m Karen Ryan. Just in case you were in Tibet the past couple of weeks, I’m that Karen Ryan who rejuvenated the veracity of the video news release and added new meaning to the term “voice-over.” I was hired by a local Washington production company to narrate Medicare VNRs it was producing for the Department of Health and Human Services. Why me? Because I operate my own small business capitalizing on my professional career of more than 20 years in television news as a producer, news anchor and reporter.
But dumb me, little did I think about how this is an election year and Medicare is a politically charged topic. The story took on a life of its own totally based on rumor, innuendo and, “Well, if the Times ran it, guess it must be true.” Shame on me for practicing my profession and engaging in a standard, acceptable practice, namely, narrating a VNR.
I did nothing wrong. Nothing. I am not a hooker, in spite of Chris Matthews’ out-of-control ranting and raving on MSNBC. I’m not a phony, as stated in an editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And from all accounts, I’m certainly not an actress, as labeled by the “always accurate” reporters of The New York Times.
What do these icons of modern journalism have in common? None of them checked their facts, talked to me or otherwise researched the story from the dateline. My phone never rang because no one ever called to find out who the real Karen Ryan is.
It started Monday, March 15, with a New York Times front-page story about a federal investigation into the Bush administration’s paying people to pose as journalists and praising the benefits of the new Medicare law. The videos, it said, were distributed to local stations and not identified as being distributed by the government, another boldfaced distortion of the truth. The story also reported that the videos ended with a woman who says, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.” That’s when the story took on a life of its own.
In Journalism 101 you learn that each news story has two sides, like it or not. It’s called fair and balanced reporting. A reporter’s job is to collect the facts and, to the best of his or her ability, report the truth. But Robert Pear, author of the Times story, never called me to ask anything about my role in the videos before printing his story. As such, he denied me my fundamental right in the process of journalism.
Newspapers from around the country reprinted the New York Times article. Editorials were written and television shows talked about the journalist scandal. Even Jay Leno and Jon Stewart got into the act and talked about “fake news” and the “hired actress.” Only one reporter from the Columbia Journalism Review and one columnist from the Pittsburgh Press ever called to verify the facts and to hear my side of the story, and that was four days after the original story hit.
Today’s news organizations are bombarded with information, 24-7. How it is reported or disseminated is where the journalistic debate begins. The role of the reporter or journalist is supposed to be as gatekeeper of that information, with the innate responsibility to verify its truth or dig deeper.
I do not believe there is anything wrong with a press release or a video news release clearly marked as such, as was the case with the HHS VNRs. I also don’t believe using video from an outside source is a shameful act. How a news organization evaluates and airs information received from nonprofits, government agencies and industry is totally up to the news organization. Good VNR examples are the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash videos, or the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall videos. But there is something wrong when a clearly marked video or print news release is used by a news organization without questioning its source or factual basis.
If the lessons of the Medicare VNRs are to have substance, it should be for debate in journalism classes and not on the front pages of national newspapers. If this story needs a scapegoat, it’s not me. Rather, try checking the practice of journalists more interested in their own agenda as opposed to verifying facts, and remember the lessons of Journalism 101.
I’m a proud television professional and remain so to this day. However, thanks to overanxious reporters, my professional reputation has been challenged because of journalists who refused, for whatever reason-personal, political or just plain sloppy reporting-to do the basics. The American public deserves better.
This is Karen Ryan reporting.
Karen Ryan is president of the Karen Ryan Group, a communications consulting firm offering media and presentation coaching to CEOs and executives.