Journalists’ Duplicitous Loyalties

Kovach and Rosenstiel claim that journalists’ first loyalty is to citizens for which they write. They explain that “digging up and telling the truth—even at the expense of the owners’ other financial interests—is a prerequisite of telling the news . . . it is the basis for why citizens believe a news organization” (52-53). Unfortunately, the public has come expect journalists to be self-destructive in their investigation, not just revealing the truth “even at the expense of the owners,” but especially if it’s at the expense of the owners. This might help explain why citizens are starting to lose interest in big journalism, and the citizens-as-journalists trend is becoming increasingly prominent.

I say this is unfortunate, because journalists, although their first loyalty might be to the citizens, retain other loyalties which can be very strong themselves. In an article by Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery about journalists’ loyalties, journalists’ loyalties aren’t dichotomy-based. The loyalties are very diverse and different at times. “All journalists have a variety of loyalties including loyalty to oneself and family, employer, professional colleagues and fellow human beings” ( Consider the loyalty a journalist has to himself/herself. He/she is still a part of the citizenry (which is a major theme of America—regular citizens representing the public as a whole is better than elitist members “representing” the public), and thus has a certain duplicitous loyalty to himself/herself as a citizen and as the self. This begs the question how do journalists cope with the choice between reporting according to their own conscience vs. reporting according to the “needs” of the public, or what the journalist feels are the needs of the public?

Perhaps the journalists’ innate perceptions of what the public needs to know is a built-in censor for preventing a conflict of interests between the journalist and the public. And perhaps there are more battles of ambivalence in the journalism world than the public sees. Assuming that journalists do write, in part, to protect the public from certain “truths” for the sake of decency (I’m thinking here of journalist Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American where the main British reporter faces the inner conflict between reporting and protecting, being forced to choose brushing over more gruesome events or even omit particular things that happened), what would the public do if they found out how often that happens or with what situations that happens. A public riddled with entitlement (much like the American public) conceivably would react in outrage and even further their distrust of journalists.

But we must also ask ourselves, what sort of entitlement does the public have to the truth when they display an extreme sense of apathy and/ignorance. Jay Leno captured some of this sentiment on camera and played the best-of these incidences on his final show:

It is in part because of this that I would not say that the journalists’ first loyalty is strictly dedicated to the public. I dare say that the journalists’ loyalty lies within themselves as well as with the public. Using their sense of truthiness (see this post for a previous discussion on my opinion of truthiness and its role in journalism and drawing upon a dedication to the public, journalists become more effective writers. I do believe that Kovach and Rosenstiel’s all encompassing statement that journalists’ first loyalty is to the public is a little too general. I am a proponent of journalists “protecting the public” when the detailed truth is unnecessary. That’s a part of the job to censor and filter what happens. It’s only when the filtering is used with a specific agenda that doesn’t prioritize the public’s needs that it turns into an infringement of public trust and a violation of honest journalism.

 Carli Hanson

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