What Journalists Should Be Asking—but Aren’t
By Kathleen Kennedy
There are two mantras of old school journalism that appear to have gone the way of the rotary phone: 1) Never believe the first answer, and 2) When in doubt, check it out. In the early 1980s when I began my career in television news, even a shred of doubt was enough for us to whip out the journalistic shovel and commence digging. Woodward and Bernstein were our idols, the unrelenting model of perfection to which we all aspired. We were trained to ask the questions with one eyebrow up. Skepticism was a badge of honor. We didn’t seek the fleeting “ah-hah” moments of today’s reporting, we sought truth. There was no cutting and pasting in haste to get a story before the competition.
Don’t get me wrong. We did strive to get the story first, but we also did the actual legwork to get it right. Just ONE wrong move could cost your employer its credibility, and in a field that lacked the competition journalists have today, it was more noticeable. THAT was unthinkable. But in the wake of a 24-hour news cycle and countless competitors in print, internet and television, the bar we once held high found itself inches above ground. Never was that more apparent to this old schooler than this past February at a news conference for the World Mercury Project at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Our aim was to enlighten the media on the doubts we have in the integrity of the science related to our nation’s vaccines. However, if I had any doubts about the state of integrity of journalism today, those doubts were solidified at that very press conference.
Bad Journalism: Some Telltale Signs
Let me take you back a moment and explain how I became affiliated with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and the World Mercury Project. It was on a ski lift in Aspen, Colorado, during Christmas vacation last year when I noticed I was sitting beside Kennedy. We began to talk about the beautiful weather as one often does on a ski lift, and I asked him if he was still doing his water conservation work. He replied, “Yes, and I’m also working on vaccines now.” He proceeded to express his concerns about mercury, one of the world’s most toxic substances, still used as a preservative (thimerosal) in vaccines. Kennedy questioned why it was still being injected into human beings despite the fact that mercury is 100 times more lethal than lead. He continued to explain the relationship between mercury and autism, as well as the doubts he has in the integrity of the so-called definitive science on the matter. As I listened to his passion on the subject, I began to recall the stories I had read. The correlation between autism and thimerosal had been “debunked,” hadn’t it? It might have been easy for this conservative to dismiss Kennedy’s premise, especially considering I have rarely agreed with his politics. But as he continued to speak about the whistleblower, Dr. William Thompson (the co-author of one of those “definitive” studies), and other holes in the related science, it was apparent this was going to be a David and Goliath effort. Kennedy could be entirely off base, but what if he was right? What if there really was something to it? The old instincts kicked in. The eyebrow went up.
There are telltale signs of bad journalism, all of which I witnessed at the D.C. press conference that day. The most obvious is the repetition of phrases among various news outlets. It’s not uncommon to see like words and phrases often repeated among news stories. As a writer, I find that strange at best, lacking in creativity at worst. None of us uses the same language to describe a single event. This is a sign that a “journalist” is borrowing canned talking points, planted by whomever they interviewed – or they have simply copied and pasted from a previously written story. Most, it seems, are not smart enough to catch it or perhaps too busy to care. I often wonder if they go to a room after a news conference and collectively decide what words they are going to use. In the case of the mercury/autism story, those common phrases are “widely debunked” and “definitive science.” Google it and see for yourself. You’ll find other consistently repeated phrases as well.