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The Daily Tar Heel

Media Must Stay Fair, Balanced

From the Poynter Institute to Howard Kurtz's "Media Notes" column on The Washington Post's Web site, industry analysts have provided ongoing tips about how to cover "America's New War" without appearing overly patriotic -- a task which has challenged many journalists.

But objectivity isn't the only journalistic principle needing protection.

On almost a daily basis, all of the industry's ethical standards are being put to the test as the country moves closer and closer toward war.

Two events in particular have called into question what limits the media should have in covering the terrorists attacks and so far, the actions forecast troubling times for the news industry.

First, when television networks received a film of Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the attacks, they jumped at the chance to air the footage. Obtaining the film from the mostly elusive bin Laden was seen as a coup for the industry.

But the next day, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice urged the networks to stop running the unedited tapes for fear that they could trigger additional terrorist attacks.

On first glance, it appeared that the government was overstepping its boundaries by asking the networks to not air the footage live and unedited.

But in retrospect the White House's pleas to the networks were a good call. The action forces journalists to scrutinize the bin Laden footage in the same manner in which it traditionally analyzes information from sources.

Given the many ways bin Laden has managed to manipulate millions, the media should have been more responsible. No further attacks were triggered by the footage, but next time we might not be so lucky. Previewing the tapes is no different than editing a news package, and it is worth the extra effort.

In another case, CNN caught many off guard by announcing it would submit six questions to bin Laden through the Arab television network al-Jareeza.

The decision quickly drew controversy because giving bin Laden a list of specific questions appeared to reverse a a long-standing rule that journalists should not manipulate interviews. CNN's own stylebook warns against providing questions to a source before an interview.

CNN based its decision to offer the questions to bin Laden on the "extraordinary circumstance."

But what if bin Laden refuses to answer the questions? Will networks bend yet another rule to get information from bin Laden? Just how many exceptions can we afford to make?

Newspapers also have seen their share of controversy. In New York, two editors at The Oneida Daily Dispatch were fired over a Sept. 19 editorial in which an unidentified Pakistani was quoted as saying Jews were responsible for the terrorist attacks in America.

Almost immediately, the paper received complaints from readers who called the editorial anti-Semitic. The paper tried to explain that the editorial's purpose was to offer varying viewpoints on the tragedy, even the inflammatory ones. But the controversy eventually led to the dismissal of its managing editor and associate editor. Then the paper issued an apology calling the editorial "fatally flawed."

Had the editors passed off the man's opinions as true facts, their firings might be justified. But this was not the case. The editors were simply honoring their duty to offer all sides of a story and shouldn't have been fired.

When viewed separately, each of the above situations seem like isolated incidents in which news directors were forced to make last-minute decisions.

But together, the actions indicate a disturbing trend in which journalists feel compelled to bend the rules and justify their actions as necessary in this unprecedented time of crisis.

While no one could have predicted the tumultuous times in which we are now living, journalists should maintain their longstanding traditions to get out fair and accurate news.

Journalists also should be unafraid to publish controversial ideas. But at the same time, they must carefully scrutinize any piece of information.

These principles have carried the national media for the past 200-plus years and should carry it for the next.

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Columnist April Bethea can be reached at adbethea@email.unc.edu.

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