Typewriters, Technology and Trust

Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

A little girl in my family got a typewriter for Christmas.

Not a laptop. Nothing with a screen. A typewriter. The old-fashioned manual kind with a smeary ribbon and keys that stick.

Typewriters had pretty much gone the way of dodo birds, car tail fins and cigar-chomping editors who yell “Stop the Presses” quite some years before my granddaughter was born. But it was the typewriter used by the school-age, aspiring journalist in the movie “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” that captivated her.

Or maybe it was the way the typewriter was used. In the movie, a tween-ish girl, played winningly by Abigail Breslin (”Little Miss Sunshine“), does old-fashioned journalism and writes stories that help right a wrong in Depression-era Cincinnati. Kit may be young, but in a challenging environment she keeps her wits—and a strong sense of ethics—about her.

In today’s rapidly realigning media landscape, typewriters have long since given way to laptops, BlackBerries, camera phones, video phones and Twitter. But here at Thomson Reuters, and in the media as a whole, the need for a strong sense of ethics has never been more necessary.

Not all Hollywood depictions of our profession are that inspiring to would-be journalists — mainly because of the way some on-screen reporters behave.

Take “Ace in the Hole,” Billy Wilder’s 1951 tale of a reporter (Kirk Douglas) who cynically prolongs and manipulates coverage of a man trapped in a cave in the hope of returning to the big time. Douglas’s Chuck Tatum is as cynical as Kit is idealistic.

“I can handle big news and little news,” he tells an editor. “And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” Later, referring to a sign in the newsroom that reads “Tell the Truth,” Tatum acknowledges some guilt. But, “Not enough to stop me. I’m on my way back to the top, and if it takes a deal with a crooked sheriff, that’s alright with me! And if I have to fancy it up with an Indian curse and a broken hearted wife for Leo, then that’s alright too!”

In both movies, the journalists use typewriters. It’s what they do with them that makes the difference. And today, it’s what we do with our hardware—the journalism we produce—that makes the difference.

At Thomson Reuters, there are five Trust Principles that form the bedrock on which our journalism rests. The principles, adopted by Reuters in 1941 and fully embraced by Thomson when it acquired Reuters in 2008, state that:

• Thomson Reuters shall at no time pass into the hands of any one interest, group or faction;

• Integrity, independence and freedom from bias shall at all times be fully preserved;

• Thomson Reuters shall supply unbiased and reliable news services to newspapers, news agencies, broadcasters and other media subscribers and to businesses, governments, institutions, individuals and others with whom Thomson Reuters has or may have contracts;

• Thomson Reuters shall pay due regard to the many interests which it serves in addition to those of the media; and

• No effort shall be spared to expand, develop and adapt the news and other services and products of Thomson Reuters so as to maintain its leading position in the international news and information business.

To me, at the heart of these principles are the preservation of integrity, independence and freedom from bias and the requirement that we expand, develop and adapt to maintain a leading position in news and information.

It means ethics and standards are compatible with innovation. In fact, they have to go hand in hand.

It means independent and unbiased news reporting. It also means embracing blogging, multimedia storytelling, providing knowledgeable and insightful columnists like James Saft and Bernd Debusmann; engaging with our community of users and taking advantage of the offerings of citizen journalists in You Witness. It means being ready to use technology and storytelling forms we haven’t thought of yet.

There’s a lot of room for innovation here, but there’s no room for a Chuck Tatum, who would do anything to get to the top.

In about 2020, my granddaughter will probably be using technology that hasn’t been developed yet to work on her school “newspaper,” and it almost certainly won’t be produced on paper. She won’t be using her typewriter but she will, I hope, be using what she’s learned from the journalists of this generation. It’s up to us to set the right example.

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