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Behind writing, reading the news

Jan Garrison

Tips from Max Rosenthal '02


December 12, 2019

As a writer of the news, Max Rosenthal ’02 is also a consumer of the news. He understands the effort, ethics, and journalistic standards that go into producing accurate news accounts and how to make sure the news you are reading is real.

Rosenthal came back to campus as a Global Studies Institute guest speaker Wednesday. He talked to students about how the news gets made and how they should read it. He recently gave a similar talk to a class at the United States Naval Academy.

He has worked for the Associated Press, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, PRI’s The World, and the Huffington Post. He served in the U.S. Army after graduating from the University of Virginia, then attended the Columbia University School of Journalism.

His news work has taken him to Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Washington. His beats have included foreign affairs, national security and military affairs, sports, and space. He is now working as a freelance writer, primarily covering the medical field.

Rosenthal said part of the confusion over journalism and journalists is there no government certification or license that says you are a legitimate reporter. Especially in today’s world, “anyone can publish anything,” he said. “It’s a free-for-all.”

What sets real journalism apart is the ethics and standards followed by the reporters and news organizations. The field is self-policing and self-governing, he said, no matter what the format. And these organizations should be sharing their code of standards and/or ethics openly on their websites.

The basic standard is the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, he said. Those ethical standards include:

  • Verify the information before releasing it.
  • Identify sources clearly.
  • Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify.
  • Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations or wrongdoing.
  • Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests.
  • Never deliberately distort facts or context.
  • Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views you find repugnant.
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.



When reading the news, Rosenthal said do so carefully and critically.

“Nothing can be taken for granted,” he said. There are trusted news sources, but always consume your news with a dose of skepticism. Always look at where it was printed (what newspaper/website): the byline (who wrote the story); and where they are reporting the news from (dateline).

Also, look to see what section the information is being printed. Is the story in the politics section, national news, local news, or opinion section? This is important because opinion pieces do not have as strict guidelines as news stories, he said, adding, “I don’t read them at all.”

Also, always read past the headline, he said. “Engage with the story.” The headline may not cover the most important aspect of the story.

With the amount of information being put out today, Rosenthal said it is important to be selective but engaged. Since most stories use the inverse pyramid method of reporting, reading the top five paragraphs of a story should give a reader a strong feel for it.

He added he doesn’t watch television news because it is based on an “entertainment first” format. And, when selecting your news sources, base those choices on what you consider to be the most truthful. But, he added, remember there can be different “versions of the truth.”

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