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Getting the details right

A 40-year-old sin shows the importance of factual reporting

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

I told a deliberate lie in print one time because I honestly thought it was the best way to tell the truth. I knew even then that it was wrong, but it took me a few years to understand why-and what was at stake. My embarrassment now some 40 years later is still a reminder how important WORLD magazine's journalistic task is from week to week.

I was dishonest back then with readers of the Daily Iowan, where I did a story about a sharp conflict between the state's educational bureaucrats and a small rural Amish school not far from my home. In my account, I fabricated an Amish father who didn't really exist. His component parts-and all the quotes I attributed to him-came from three different Amish men I really did interview. But none of them was quite as interesting or colorful as the man I wished I might have bumped into. So in the interest of a more artful story, I introduced my readers to someone who did not literally exist. The picture I drew was valid; my facts, though, were not true.

That, of course, is almost exactly what the infamous Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke did in 1980, with her Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a little boy purported to be a drug addict. Ms. Cooke lost her prize-and her job-the next year when it was discovered that she too had just imagined the little boy. Her story, she argued, was valid-if not factual. The Post's publisher, Donald Graham, said: "I believed it; we published it. It is a brilliant story-fake and fraud that it is."

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If there is a journalist anywhere in the world who claims never to have been tempted to do what Janet Cooke and I both did, maybe you should distrust that person just for such a denial! But that doesn't minimize the wrong. Anyone who wanders into substituting his or her view of "truth" for the actual facts is dangerous as a journalist. Such a person might serve well enough as an essayist, a novelist, or a playwright. But journalists, by definition, belong in a different category.

When you read WORLD, you should have confidence that the details in the accounts you find here are all for real-and that nobody made them up just for added effect. Simply put, you want us to play fair with you.

But that expectation, while it certainly includes the details, also goes way beyond them. That is especially true in a magazine like WORLD, with our claim to specialize in what we call "perspective" and "worldview." If our writers look for and then report back to you only those details-however literally true they may be-that reinforce and confirm what you already think to be the case, are we really being honest and helpful to you as a reader?

Our real goal is to help our readers see what's happening around the world the way it really is-or, audacious as it sounds, the way God sees it happening. To do that, we start by getting the little details right, and developing consistent habits of telling the truth about those details. But we work hard as well to get those details accurately placed in a context that also conforms to God's truth. That means our staff has to do its work from issue to issue with a certain modesty and humility, always ready to be proven wrong and to see things from a fresh and more reality-instructed perspective.

I am ashamed of what I did 40 years ago in fabricating the details of a story I pretended then was altogether true. I know better now that we never serve the larger truth well by pretending we can manipulate the details.

But is it an odd and counterintuitive hope that by reporting to you now the details of my wrongdoing, you might actually have greater trust and confidence in what we are doing at the beginning of this new year in the pages and on the website of WORLD?

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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