by Sheila Moss, WebEditor
In a recent column of advice to journalism students, Robert Niles warned, “Be careful what you post online as it reflects upon the reputation you are trying to build.” As it turns out, truer words were never spoken for Sports Columnist Mike Wise of the Washington Post who got himself in a “heap of trouble” with an untrue post to Twitter that angered sports fans everywhere.
It was not so much what he said as it was that he deliberately posted an untrue story that deceived people. His dubious explanation? He wanted to show that reputable media would quote something posted on Twitter without bothering to check it out.
Any scribe knows, or should know, that the most important thing you have as a journalist is your credibility. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists Code of Conduct says, “I will work hard to earn and keep the trust my readers and editors place in me.” Indeed, failing to tell the truth to the best of your ability is a cardinal sin in the world of news reporting.
Wise’s comment might seem inconsequential to some: A Steelers player suspended for misconduct would be suspended for five games, he alleged. So, what does it matter how many games? Ask a NFL fan that believed Wise and trusted his credibility, or thought that he might have access to inside sources. It was a betrayal of his obligation to give fair and honest reporting.
Wise later admitted the hoax and apologized, of course. But the flap caused him to be suspended for a month by the Washington Post to think things over. Some fans have expressed the opinion that he should have been fired. He has surely learned his lesson, but will readers believe him now or think what he has to say is simply another fabrication?
Anyone can start a rumor online as a joke or hoax — anyone who is not a journalist. Even columnists who write parody, satire, or humor understand the obligation for basic honesty. If a humorist writes in jest, exaggerates, or does not tell the complete truth, it must be obvious. Readers must be in on the joke.
News columnists express opinions based on the truth as they see it. Readers are free to agree or disagree. Of course, anyone can make a mistake, but one should be willing to admit an error and correct it whenever possible. And, there is a vast difference between a mistake and a deliberate deception.
Much has been said by pundits about this transgression in our midst, which is as it should be. Let us all take note and become wiser from it. We must never forget to maintain our integrity as columnists. Even in blogs, even on Facebook, even on Twitter.