Why We Aren't Cynical — But Are Skeptical : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
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Why We Aren't Cynical — But Are Skeptical

If you haven't a chance yet, it's worth taking the time to listen to and read about Somaly Mam and the "slippery truth" beneath her story.

Start with the conversation All Things Considered had last week with journalist Simon Marks. He discusses the cover story he wrote for Newsweek.

As he reported, Mam "is one of the world's most compelling activists, brave and beautiful, and her list of supporters is long and formidable." She fights against sex trafficking in Cambodia and has won praise from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "and actresses Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon and Shay Mitchell, as well as New York Times Pulitzer-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof."

But it also appears, Marks reported, that "key parts of her story aren't true." That, in turn, has raised questions about the pieces done by Kristof and other journalists — who reported as fact the tales Mam told of being forced into prostitution and the accounts from some of the young women she claimed to have saved.

Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, wrote this week that Kristof "owes it to his readers to explain, to the best of his ability and at length, what happened and why."

Kristof has said he is "reluctant to be an arbiter of her back story when I just don't know what is true and false among the conflicting statements. I am continuing to poke around."

The subject line on this note contrasts being cynical with being skeptical. Editors have said for years that journalists should not be cynics — distrustful, sarcastic or mocking. But journalists should be skeptics — doubters who check things out, ask more questions and try to poke holes in stories.

Or, as our guidelines suggest, we do not "just spread information." We are "careful and skeptical."