A Short Course in Journalism


Oct 21

Readers tell me they love my personal stories. If you don’t, just jump to the next headline.

Close friends know that I am an autodidact, meaning self-taught. The definition of that word, though, includes: “without the benefit of a teacher or formal education.” However, like most autodidacts, I supplement with formal education, outside instruction, and heavy research when needed.

They also know that I collect quotations, or what I refer to as “wisdoms,” and one quotation that affects my learning is, “A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient.” To me, that also applies to teachers.

I was first introduced to Eastern Thought in college, my very first college class. They called it Humanities, and I had no idea what that meant, but it was open, and my pre-med studies allowed it.

It was there, centuries ago, it seems, that I picked up this bit of wisdom from the professor who said, “I will teach you but a fraction; the rest you must learn on your own,” or as Confucius put it, “Every truth has four corners: as a teacher I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three.” It was also there, in those first years, that my interest in epistemology sprouted, as I began to absorb that all things are connected (but that’s a story for next time).

I also learned from Confucius, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Though I really think Will Rogers said it best: “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

Thus throughout my life, I have set out to study a subject, and at times landed in a classroom to both supplement what I’d learned, and test my knowledge, or I’d do the inverse and get a formal education and then go off on my own to finish my studies. I have spent some ten years at institutions of higher learning, doing what, I can’t remember, but I do remember truly challenging myself twice. The first time was when I had an open class and opted to take up the dreaded study of statistics (you are continually warned how foreboding that is), and the second time was signing up for classes at Jerusalem University after only two years of Hebrew. Bless them all for requiring reading materials that had also been written in English.

Another great way to learn something is to teach it, and the best teachers I’ve been honored to know were also the best students.

I don’t hold a teaching certificate, but I have been often employed as a teacher/lecturer because of my expertise in certain fields. For instance, my teaching career began first after I arrived stateside from Vietnam, and I taught helicopter flying. While I was in pre-med, with a huge penchant for the sciences, I was hired by the first Outdoor Education Center in Minnesota. After arriving, all of us sat down to devise the curriculum, since this was so brand new. I ended up teaching water biology (from both a canoe and later in a cabin with microscopes), conservation, and climate change, using studies that were turned over to the oil industry in the late sixties.

All in all, I’ve held around twenty positions as an educator, from swimmer training, sinkers, to elderly, to life guards, to being the Mr Wizard at the Jewish Community Center where I often demonstrated scientific principles using many of Don Herbert’s demonstrations and creating a few of my own. My last episode of in-person teaching consisted of lecturing young and future doctors at the UofMN in nutritional therapies. After that, because of a disorder I’d picked up called lethologica (the inability to remember words), I had to quit lecturing and take up writing where I can lose a word for days and the reader need never know.

When I started up a computer consulting company, I was entirely self-taught. My education began right after arriving home from living five years in Israel. I got stuck inside my brother’s home while it was quite a bit colder than the usual forty below outside. I’d had my dog with me; I’d rescued her in Israel. We both learned something during that horrible weather. The dog learned to bark to come in after peeing, and I learned BASIC programming on a Commodore 64, my brother’s Christmas gift from his wife. All my life logic had come to me quite easily, and in Israel I’d discovered that I had a knack for languages. Thus I started my self-education in computer languages, and thirteen years later retired.

I even lied to get my second job with the State of Minnesota when I was asked, “Do you have any experience in dBASE III.” I responded, “I could write that code in my sleep.” After less than two weeks on the job I was coding in dBASE III like a pro. And get this: Having my ear to the ground, I discovered a multi-user database engine (dBASE III was not multi-user, and we had to work around that fact since six people used the same database at the same time) and the new engine was thousands of times faster.  My income soon quadrupled and I started hiring more programmers.

However, at times when I found myself “in over my head,” I consulted with experts and took a couple of formal classes. I’m no fool.

I was able to retire from it all at the age of 47 having designed and created millions of dollars in systems for both State and Federal governments.

As for journalism, I’d first been introduced to it when I finally settled down in college and chose a major in English (honors). My view of journalism was akin to Oscar Wilde’s: “The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.” In fact, in my entire career in journalism, the only piece I’ve ever written in a journalistic style is the Biography of Helen Gilbert.

I am, for the most part, a maverick journalist, except that integrity and the eternal quest for the truth will always be my path forward. When it comes to journalism ethics, the mavericks are fools and tools.

Instead of a dissertation, in Israel I wrote a column. It was called Dear Vivis (borrowed from Dear Abby), Vivis being the dog I’d rescued, who became one of the most famous dogs in that country, especially when she made a commercial for a Clean Up Israel Campaign. Giving her a column wasn’t such a huge leap. Families wrote with questions about training, problem pets, and raising them in general. Often the response from Vivis (me writing in my best Hebrew) would start out, “First, you must be smarter than your dog.” I guess Vivis was a smart aleck too.

She and I also built a humane society there.

The Hebrew at the top is from the Bible, “The Pain of Living Creatures.”

Having gone on to study journalism in a formal setting, I think you should know that what really taught me the ins and outs of investigative journalism was the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men. It should be required reading for students of journalism.

My first foray into science journalism, medical journalism, and alternative medical journalism began after years of research, but stemmed from attending a naturopath in Israel who prescribed a clear grape juice fast for my incipient appendicitis. Three days later it was gone, though I continued the fast for three more days.

In those early days I found a number of “teachers” on the web, such as Mercola, Mike Anderson, the Health Ranger, Tim Bolen, a health freedom fighter, and Dr Garry Gordon who was awarded an “honorary” Medical Degree, because he knew more than everyone else at the medical school where he taught.

However, over the years, my scrutiny of many of those mentioned has caused me to drop my interest in all of them but the last. I’ve found Mercola more interested in hawking his overpriced products, while being less than scientific, often referencing his non-science based ideas in other papers at his site; Mike Anderson has become a conspiracy theorist, and his appearances in interviews are just a rehash of the same old pith he’s been spouting for years; and Tim Bolen really let me down with his coverage of the Doctor’s Data versus Barrett lawsuit. I’d been following it closely and then suddenly nothing. One day I decided to investigate it myself and discovered that the suit had ended amicably, with everyone hugging, toasting champagne, and then going out for a Happy Meal (he says sarcastically). After his huge buildup, Bolen never printed a summation, and it was apparent that journalistic ethics are not his bag. Say, bye, Bolen.

With the growth of the internet, I discovered fact checking sites, the most popular of them being Snopes. They seemed to be good at what they did, but their initial take on aspartame left a bad taste in my mouth. Slowly over the years, they’ve not changed their stance, and in a page no longer available, they simply listed a report by the FDA, along with opinions from a few pseudo-scientific organizations (often funded by the soda industry).

However, I recently discovered a site called Media Bias Fact/Check that rates sites on the web for a bias or challenges their sources. It helps in my research, and if you look up Snopes or FactCheck.org, you’ll find that they rate them both unbiased. However, the site itself has a bias when it comes to medical information, holding to the philosophy that anything outside of the realm of conventional medicine has a bias. I discovered this when I looked up quackwatch.org and found “legitimate science or are evidence based through the use of credible scientific sourcing.”

That cracked me up since over the years we’ve followed Stephen Barrett’s career and all the lawsuits he’s filed and all the lawsuits he’s lost, with one judge declaring him to not be an expert in anything. And while I was Dr Sam Chachoua’s biographer, I watched the spate of lies posted at the site, where Barrett even failed to publish the initial trial reports out of Cedars-Sinai, claiming Dr Sam’s treatment for cancer was the most positive treatment they’d ever tested.

Even I, back then, pulled an unconscionable boner by downloading images of Cedars’ reports and then losing them. But I was in my youth, barely 50.

It’s not been an easy ride for me, but I’ve managed to stay the path, despite a bit of brain damage from PTSD and associated memory issues. I really have to keep great notes as I research, but sometimes I spend as much time looking for that research as I do looking for my damn car keys. Though now, I hang the keys around my neck, and most of the time I keep the research in special folders. Inside which file they reside? well, that’s a whole nother issue.

So, onto your lesson. We’re done with all preliminaries.

Journalism Ethics

Nearly every profession has (they all should have) a code of ethics. Architects shouldn’t design buildings that collapse, doctors shouldn’t kill patients, and lawyers shouldn’t have conflicts of interests. But buildings do collapse, doctors do kill patients, and lawyers have conflicts of interests.

The people have the court system to go after them when they’ve been injured by incompetence or negligence, though that too is now controlled by the corporatocracy that has done everything possible to protect corporations instead of consumers.

Having grown up in a medical family, I was all too familiar with malpractice lawsuits. I heard constant complaining about malpractice insurance costs, always rising, and one time my father confronted the plaintiff in a lawsuit and asked him why he was filing. His patient replied, “I need the money, Doc.”

My father had introduced hypnosis to obstetrics in Minnesota, and finally quit delivering babies because a mother is allowed to go after her obstetrician up to 18 years after giving birth.

Ethics are important, and here they are:

The Five Principles of Ethical Journalism [Ref]

1. Truth and Accuracy

No journalist can guarantee “truth,” but getting the facts right is the bottom line. Facts must be checked and sources must be corroborated and consistent. When one person says this, and another person says that, the journalist’s job is to find out which one is right, or at least which one is lying although you can be sure the word “liar” will be replaced with one of the many (hundreds?) synonyms. And if they cannot determine who’s right and who’s wrong, then the journalist must say so. Accuracy is the goal, and sometimes no matter how hard you aim at that goal, you can miss. But you’re not allowed to make conclusions on your own. And all facts have contexts. If you ignore the contexts, you might as well be lying.

“A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”


Claude Rains

The best example of drawing unfounded conclusions is a video someone recently sent me created by Citizen Journalists, or journalists who’ve never been inside a journalism classroom, and know nothing about the journalistic process, let alone ethics.

Here’s a summary of their report, which seemed to me immediately biased from the start.

First they replay a nightly news segment showing people lined up for testing and people crowded into hospitals. During the 2020 (and beyond) pandemic, we often saw or heard about this on TV.

Next a citizen journalist heads out with a video camera and goes to the same hospital where people had been lined up for testing, and videos that there is no one lined up. He goes inside the hospital and the waiting room is empty. Doctors and nurses aren’t running around with their head chopped off.

He concludes that we’ve all been lied to. It’s all a conspiracy concocted by the main stream media.

I just started laughing. No journalist of any integrity can make a conclusion without answering the question “why?” or without digging to find answers. You find those answers by interviewing the people involved and corroborating your findings. You do not make a conclusion by asking rhetorical questions while taking a video. You have to go in search of answers.

He never interviewed any of the staff in the hospital asking why people weren’t lined up. They could have run out of tests. That was high up on the possibility list.

Why aren’t patents in the waiting room? It could be the standing order in hospitals not to have people sitting around sharing the virus. But he doesn’t ask the people involved.

He never asks what changes in their procedures could produce everything he’s videoed. He just makes his wrongheaded, unethical conclusion.

No self-respecting journalist, dropped into a war zone,
who upon finding no action for a number of hours,
sends a report back to his editors,
claiming the war is ended.

There is a journalistic technique of asking a question at the beginning of a report, because the report is intended to answer that question. There is also another cute little technique of closing with a question, like: “Could Senator Wombat have his personal reasons for delaying the vote?”

This technique is intended to get you to come back and find out. If used simply to raise doubts in your head about the senator’s integrity, then that is unethical.

I then found another “citizen journalist” in a different video about the new 5G network. She spent the better part of her spiel asking questions. “What’s the science?” “Has it been tested?” “Is it possible . . .?” “Can they be . . .” “Is there a . . .?”

A report from a journalist might have one or two questions, but it’s a journalist’s main job and purpose to find the answers. A bunch of questions isn’t responsible journalism. Journalists publish answers or admit that they are stumped. Pretty simple. Conclusions come later, but only after you’ve done the hard work.

And one final point here. Journalists rely on other journalists. Not everyone gets to sit in the White House Briefing Room. Not everyone has a “Deep Throat” to feed them leads. Not everyone has access to your sources. This is another reason why truth and accuracy are so important: other journalists depend on your story to write theirs.

But the truth is, we cannot always rely on other journalists or media outlets. Throughout history, there are examples of “fake news” being published, which is then picked up by other news outlets. Even the venerable Ben Franklin, as a joke, created a fake issue of a Boston newspaper. It was gruesome. It was all about how American forces had discovered bags of money and goods bound for the King. The bag also contained scalps of soldiers and civilians. On a lark he sent it to friends, many of whom noticed the fonts were not the same as the original paper, etc etc etc, but the thing is, the story got around and other newspapers picked it up and eventually it stood as proof that Native Americans were depraved savages.

One newspaper, suspecting that a competing newspaper had been plagiarizing their work, published a fake story just to see if their competitor, the Daily News would pick it up. And the very next day, sure enough,the Daily News published the story about the shooting of “Mejk Swenekafew” near the Columbia mines, And they’d been caught! You have to love that name, Swenekafew, which backwards is WEFAKENEWS. [Ref]

2. Independence

You cannot produce a factual or accurate reporting if you act on the behalf of a special interest, whether corporate, cultural, or political. It is that simple. Everyone has biases, but an ethical journalist must not bring that bias into their investigation, into the questions they ask, or to whom they’re questioning. When I set out to learn (learning comes before reporting) about America’s response and preparation for this pandemic, all we knew was things were not happening very fast and people were going to die. I read the critics and what facts they had, and all that had to be fact checked. I read the supporters and what they said, and that too had to be fact checked.

In fact, while writing up the newsletter, twice I found that the information I’d received was heavily partisan. Thank heavens for factchecking before it went out.

Now you’re gonna love this one.

Back during Nixon’s time, Roger Ailes proposed to the President an idea he’d come up with. And that was GOP-TV.

Now if that doesn’t start out with an inherent bias, then spank by bottom and call me Myrtle.

His concept eventually turned into Fox News.

This might surprise you, but I happen to like some of the programming Fox has because there are news personnel there who have integrity. But for the most part, journalists everywhere just hang their heads, and considering all the lawsuits filed against Fox News over the years, for good reason. Putting out crap when people are dying can be deadly. And we will take that up in the fourth principle up ahead, but first . . . .

3. Fairness and Impartiality

Every story has two sides. This is why cops separate husbands and wives when called in to referee a domestic dispute; this is why we have courts of law.

There is a very famous piece in the annals of psychology called, “They Saw a Game: A Case Study.”

It focuses on “selective perception,” something familiar to all you women out there when you refer to your husband’s “selective hearing.”

Princeton and Dartmouth played a football game, and it was a rough game with penalties and injuries.

“The Princeton quarterback, an All-American, in this, his last game for his college, had had to leave the game in the second quarter with a broken nose and a mild concussion. In the third quarter the Dartmouth quarterback’s leg was broken when he was tackled in the backfield.” [Ref]

The study questions asked groups from both schools the same questions and it showed, that for the most part, they “seemed” to be watching two different games. Essentially, Dartmouth blamed Princeton and Princeton blamed Dartmouth, but if you take a close look, now and then, someone in the test went against a bias toward their side. These types will make fair and impartial journalists.

Journalists reporting on politics should not get political, and if they say something that is “opinion,” then they must say so. You’ll often hear, “It is this reporter’s opinion . . . . ” but that is quite different from a bias. We are allowed our opinions, whereas bias slants and spins a story outside the realm of journalistic integrity.

And one more thing. It is impossible to be objective when witnessing the horrors of crimes against humanity. In these cases, journalists are free to express their outrage.

Once again, everyone has biases. But when you don the cap of a journalist, you ignore them in your quest for the facts with contexts. 

As for objectivity, well, that discussion has been going on for some time now, and at the end of this, we will point you to a very interesting debate on this subject, that started as an argument in 1979. It continues on even today.

4. Humanity

First do no harm. What you publish has an impact on the readers/viewers. Publishing misinformation can injure and kill. Publishing photos of dying soldiers in Vietnam created a whiplash against the industry, because mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and wives had to witness the horrible destruction of loved ones. The uproar created new rules for journalism. And they were strictly followed by the media thereafter. However, during the first years after our invasion of Iraq, not publishing images of draped coffins arriving home was considered by most of the media as censorship. When balancing reports and interviews, the journalist must balance the horrors of war against censorship. Many journalists self-censor for ethical reasons.

Oh, and get this. The courts have already determined that misinformation is perfectly legal because it’s not up to the government to censor the media.

Instead of buyer beware, it’s now reader/viewer beware.

5. Accountability

Confucius put it nicely: “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.”

Accountability is also paramount when writing a story that has not yet concluded. It is incumbent upon the journalists to write up the conclusion when they learn of it. There is also accountability when sourcing your work. If you use someone else’s work without sourcing it, that’s plagiarism.

On our Facebook page, at the beginning of our pandemic, I published/referenced an article from the New England Journal of Medicine that told us this virus would be just like a flu outbreak. Doctors, experts, and peer reviewed journals make mistakes just like everyone else. If you go to our page, you’ll see I’ve deleted the story saying just that. That’s being accountable, even though I was not responsible for their findings. Correcting it and publishing that you’ve made the correction is accountability.

Pretty simple stuff. I’ve made enough mistakes in my life to know that the best apology is admission and correction. And, I should tell you, that yes, it stings when you find out, but the cure is making a retraction and a sincere apology.

I hope you have enjoyed your little class in Journalism. There won’t be a test, unless, of course, you take up journalism. Every piece you produce is your final exam.

The Truth

As stated already, perhaps never enough, the ultimate goal of journalism is (or should be) publishing the truth.

“The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.”


Herbert Sebastian Agar

During the pandemic, I put out quite a few newsletters (I’m done, I’m retired, I write for fun now) and when I posted facts, I was accused of having TDR, or Trump Derangement Syndrome. Partisan minds, brainwashed minds, and simple minds never want to hear the truth when it goes against their beliefs. In fact, there’s a new term out that talks about this phenomenon: The Boomerang Effect.

When someone who believes something is given the facts, the truth about that belief and it contradicts that person’s beliefs, that person will believe the lies and distortions even stronger. The Boomerang Effect.

When I posted the facts, I numbered them and referenced them (because I fact check) and someone wrote to me that she could debunk all that but it wasn’t worth her time.

I wrote back, “Then journalism ain’t for you.”

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It is simply too painful to acknowledge—even to ourselves—that we’ve been so credulous.”


Carl Sagan

If it isn’t the truth, I will make a correction. If I’ve made a mistake I will fix it. We are all of us fallible mortals. But . . . .

In the run-up to war during the Bush II administration, papers everywhere published the facts that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was the greatest threat to peace in the world.

As David Cay Johnston  put it:

“All 3 networks, all 3 cable channels & big newspapers, are deep into journalistic malpractice. Why? Too much reliance on badly done handouts, instead of thinking, and herd reporting.”

Just weeks after our invasion, we heard it over and over that nobody had done their jobs. The job of investigative journalism is to get to the truth. Nobody did that. Our media failed.

“The history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with evidence that a truth is not hard to kill and that a lie told well is immortal.” 


Mark Twain

And yet, there were too few apologies, corrections, or admissions of malpractice.

Journalism today is entertainment.

There are some great journalists still out there fighting to bring you honest news, objective news, and if needed, an honest, thoughtful opinion.

So, let us take a look at an argument that has not quite concluded:

Two Journalists Started an Argument in Boston in 1979. It’s Not Over Yet.