Regular readers of newspapers and magazines, often publications with long and respected traditions, feel they have a kind of compact with those publications - a set of standards that gives them the confidence required in any significant relationship.
Hence, the surprise and dismay of many New Yorker readers at the disclosure that at least one New Yorker writer, Alastair Reid, has long used ''reporting'' devices that would not pass muster in newsrooms. The Wall Street Journal, in its interview with Reid, which prompted the controversy, put it this way: ''Mr. Reid , who has been appearing in the New Yorker's prestigious pages since 1951, says he has spent his career creating composite tales and scenes, fabricating personae, rearranging events, and creating conversations in a plethora of pieces presented as nonfiction. He insists his embellishments have made his articles that much more accurate, in spirit if not in fact.'' The New Yorker has partly based its reputation on maintaining a stable of fact-checkers who purportedly fine comb all articles.
One could offer the prospect of defining a new category of ''impressionistic'' journalism for magazines (but never in newspapers), a hybrid of factual reportage and illustrative composites or made-up settings and events, for the sophisticated reader to whom this might appeal.
But this labeling would have to come up front, so the reader would know what manner of material was in hand.
As it is, the New Yorker admission should prompt a reevaluation of journalistic standards.
''I feel I've been taken advantage of,'' says Stephen Hess, Brookings Institution expert on media practices, of the New Yorker admission. ''These were not the rules I had signed onto as a reader of this magazine. I would hate to think I could not trust implicitly (other New Yorker writers).''
Publications must have clearly stated standards of accuracy. Such accuracy is not limited to tangible facts and quotations, but encompasses as well the meaning or atmosphere of a situation - the broader truth, as it were.
In journalism the starting point for this truth must be incontrovertible facts. Unlike a writer of fiction, a journalist has absolutely no right of poetic license to make a story more dramatic. Events must have occurred exactly as he or she writes that they did. Quotations must be accurate. People quoted must in fact exist as individuals: There can be no composites.
This may not make the best drama, but that is not what journalism is supposed to be. It is supposed to be truthful reportage, the heart of what the media is all about. (A broader examination of the media, from the television news to First Amendment rights, appears in articles in the feature sections of today's Monitor.)
To pass off impressions as journalism or fictitious quotes for the real thing is to defraud the reader. It also damages further the credibility of the press, whose fundamental selling point is its credibility. Already that is woefully low: Only 13.7 percent of Americans have ''a great deal of confidence'' in the press, according to a 1983 survey by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
This is the most serious aspect of the New Yorker revelation. It is not the first time such an occurrence has come to light. The best known in recent years occurred in 1981, when a Pulitzer Prize was taken away from a journalist after it was learned that the central character in her article was a composite, not a specific person as represented.
Viewed positively, the commendable candor of Mr. Reid in describing his practices can contribute more broadly to securing that important compact between reader and publication.