Ethics still important, says speaker at Cal Poly journalism symposium

Karen Miller Pensiero
Karen Miller Pensiero Courtesy photo

The keynote speaker at a Cal Poly symposium honoring the life of longtime journalism professor Jim Hayes said that journalistic standards shouldn’t change as the media world evolves.

Karen Miller Pensiero, editor for newsroom standards at The Wall Street Journal, said “truth and speed” are not necessarily incompatible in a fast-moving Internet age. But being first must be secondary to accuracy.

“The old core values of journalism still apply,” Pensiero told an audience that included Cal Poly faculty, alumni, students and members of the public. “The truth is still number one. Don’t publish anything until you know it to be true.”

The speech was centered on the theme of the daylong symposium at Cal Poly — advancing integrity in journalism and communication.

Pensiero, who has worked at The Wall Street Journal for 30 years, said her job entails working with the Journal’s staff, along with in-house lawyers, to make sure they uphold standards of journalistic fairness, integrity and trust.

Evolving from the model that produced stories only for the printed press, The Wall Street Journal now produces a robust subscription website with videos and in-house interviews, uses social media tools such as Twitter and Instagram, and interacts in a less formal and more conversational way with its audience, Pensiero said.

“There’s not just one way to tell a news story anymore, but the ethics are the same, regardless of the platform,” she said.

Stories can go viral quickly and false rumors can spread quickly unless proper journalistic standards are followed, she said.

Sometimes untrained journalists who blog or tweet information don’t undertake proper fact-checking methods including verifying information with appropriate sources and allowing adequate time for a response.

Pensiero cited the example of the blog Palmetto Public Record that reported Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina was about to be indicted on tax fraud charges, according to sources who weren’t named in the story.

The information turned out to be false, but the story had gone viral because of rapid retweeting including by mainstream media such as The Washington Post, CBS News, Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed.

“It’s not fair or right to publish rumors,” Pensiero said. “That’s the same thing as watercooler talk. As we embrace new technology, we must be guided by core standards.”