Steven R. Van Hook

Newspaper ombudsman Donald D. Jones cites arrogance as one of the most common complaints he hears lodged against reporters.

Each of us knows at least one annoyingly arrogant colleague. And with a little 3 AM introspection, we're sure to spot a tad of arrogance in even the most conscientious of ourselves.

So many of the public look upon reporters with awe: the power, the celebrity status, the sexy knowledge of "what's really going on" - it's hard not to see ourselves as something special.

(On the flip side, we're often dubbed with disdain as vultures ... a very apt description as much of our time is literally spent circling for dead or dying flesh, fighting among ourselves with bloodied beaks and beating wings for the most choice morsels.)

But ours is a pseudo-power, a personification of the public's right to know. The power of the press hitches a free ride on the power of the people.

As reporters, we are observers, not doers. We make our living off the doers, typically the bad-doers. Bad news is good news and those who do wrong are our lifeblood.

Too many reporters go straight from journalism schools into the field. They haven't worked in politics or business, haven't experienced how sometimes hands get dirty when getting a job done.

So we sit in high judgment with the purity and untried innocence of a child. But put any one of us in the cutthroat political or merchandising world, with our inclination toward creative angles, Mephistopheles himself might blush at our sordid schemes.

Are we so pure? Let someone do an expose on the news media: the subtle stroking of advertisers rationalized into news, the devious manipulations of a news source, the duplicity we assume as we pursue "the story." Could our integrity as individuals and an institution stand up to the same scrutiny we impose on others?

Do I mean we should offer tolerance for misdeeds? Certainly not. But what we should offer are the qualities that make for good journalists and good journalism: compassion, empathy, and perspective.

We should offer a humble respect for the newsmakers - the doers - we cover each day. Right or wrong, saintly or satanic, they are the parts of the machine that nonetheless works as society haltingly and haphazardly improved for the better.

It's hard not to be humble when we realize we are the servants of the public, not keepers.

We are protectors of truth, not the source.