Journalism Ethics

Where do you get your news from? Do you watch CNN? Read Slate? Subscribe to the New York Times?
What’s your opinion of the news sources you read? Do you think they’re doing a good job? Reporting objectively? Covering news that matters?
If you answered “No,” you’re not alone.
A recent study found that 62 percent of Americans say they don’t trust the media.
Fifty-nine percent think newspapers are more concerned about making profits than serving the public interest.
And 58 percent don’t think journalists care about complaints of inaccuracies.
This widespread distrust and discontent can probably be traced, at least in part, by a constant parade of media scandals. In recent years, notable transgressions include:
Stephen Glass, a young rising star at the prestigious national magazine, The New Republic, was fired after it was discovered he fabricated quotations, sources, and even entire events in dozens of articles he wrote. The story of his downfall was dramatized in a 2003 film, Shattered Glass. Hayden Christensen starred as Glass.
In 2003, the New York Times suffered a black eye to its journalistic credibility when one of its young reporters, Jayson Blair, was exposed for plagiarizing and fabricating elements of various stories. Instead of conducting research and interviews for stories he was assigned, Blair would often look online and copy information from other newspapers.
More recently, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather found himself in hot water after he aired an investigative report questioning then-President George Bush’s military service record. It turned out that Rather had based his report on what bloggers determined were forged documents. This sloppy reporting ultimately led CBS to show Rather the door and forever tainted what had been a highly-regarded journalism career.
Hopefully, these kinds of sins are straightforward. You should never pass off even a sentence of someone else’s writing as your own. You should not distort the meaning of any quotes you use. You should stick to the facts and not make things up. Stuff like this is not just standard journalism practice. It’s also part of your college’s academic honesty code.
In fact, some journalism professors and ethicists would argue that cases like Glass and Blair really don’t involve ethical dilemmas. Rather, they were cases of reporters knowing right from wrong and simply yielding to temptation – doing the wrong thing for personal aggrandizement or gain.
But most journalists don’t yield to temptation. They don’t plagiarize, fabricate or lie. I’ve worked as both a journalists and a public relations practitioner. I have dealt with many reporters and can tell you that only a very few don’t play by the rules. Still, journalists are faced with ethical dilemmas nearly every day. Why?
Because giving audiences the information they need to make decisions about their own lives often involves putting values in conflict. For example, audiences often need information about private individuals that those individuals would rather not have disclosed. So, the reporter has to weigh the relative importance of two ethical principals – providing information that will help the public make decisions and respecting an individual’s right to privacy.
Suppose you discover that the college president, a married 50-year-old man, has a mistress. Does that deserve a story? What if he’s wining and dining her with college funds (i.e. your tuition money)?
To help deal with ethical dilemmas, many media outlets and journalism organizations have drawn up codes of ethics.
Many media outlets follow the code of ethics written by the Society of Professional Journalists. It’s organized around four principles:
1.      Seek truth and report it: Journalists should be honest, fair, objective and accurate.
2.      Minimize harm: Realize that you’re covering human beings. Be respectful, tasteful and sensitive. Note that it says “minimize” harm. You may not be able to completely avoid it. If you’re doing investigative reporting, for example, your story may expose corruption and cause someone to get fired. But, in the end, the greater good will be served by your reporting.
3.      Act independently: Don’t accept gifts or favors. Your only obligation is to serve the public’s interest. This is why it’s so important to avoid conflicts of interests, as we discussed during the first week of class.
4.      Be accountable: Correct mistakes and expose unethical practices by journalists. The New Republic’s staff was criticized for their role in the Glass scandal because they ignored known problems with Glass until they no longer could.
OK, now let’s put these principles to the test. Consider this scenario:
An anonymous tip alerts you that someone is mailing gunpowder in letters to the president of your college, threatening to "blow all you bastards straight to hell this Halloween." When you contact the president, he begs you not to print anything about the threats, for fear of creating panic on campus. Police officials insist that publicity would jeopardize their investigation. Halloween is two days away. Do you have a duty to warn the community of potential harm? Should you respect the authorities’ wishes and hold the story? Or set your own deadline?
What would you do if faced with this situation? Keep in mind the aforementioned ethics code, as well as your own personal convictions and beliefs. Think about it, and then make a decision.
As you’ll likely see if you discuss these scenarios with others, there’s no consensus. Smart people with good hearts may reach different conclusions on how to handle these situations. There are no right or wrong answers, only grey areas.
Regardless of what you decide, the important thing is that you give these dilemmas some thought and be able to explain how you reached your decision. Because you may receive an angry call from a reader the next day asking why you did something. Or why you didn’t do something. In journalism, you’re often damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
In 2004, for example, then-Vice President Dick Cheney told a senator “F*ck yourself” on the Senate floor. Some newspapers printed the expletive, but others edited it out in their stories. Editors at all newspapers received angry phone calls the next day. Those who printed it received calls from readers who claimed to be offended by profanity. Those who did not print the obscenity also received complaints – readers felt the newspaper wasn’t telling the whole story and being too easy on the Vice President.  
Sometimes, reader complaints can be silly. After I wrote a story about a coyote terrorizing cats in a suburban Rhode Island community, an angry father called me and cursed me out because he said the story scared his 5-year-old daughter. The public often likes to “shoot the messenger.”
But sometimes, a story can have a much greater impact than you ever anticipated. One of my stories, in particular, stands out. I reported that a mayor had his office swept for listening devices. Nothing was found, but the story created a lot of buzz. Residents were angry that there tax money had been squandered on an unnecessary service and the paranoid politician became the laughing stock of the state.
The authorities also saw the story and wondered why the mayor was so concerned that others may be eavesdropping. What was he hiding? They decided to find out and put the mayor under surveillance. Eventually, the mayor was arrested and charged with racketeering, bribery and several other corruption charges.
It took six years, but the case finally went to trial. The politician was found guilty. The following day, he committed suicide.
People often ask me whether I regret writing that story, since it ultimately led to a suicide. While what happened is very sad, I don’t have any regrets. I practiced responsible journalism. The mayor was harming his community by engaging in illegal activities. My article helped to put an end to that. Remember, SPJ’s Code of Ethics implores journalists to “minimize harm.” That doesn’t mean you can avoid it completely. And that’s what ethics can be a very tricky area.
But what’s important is that you recognize potential trouble spots, talk to others journalists about what to do and, whatever you end up deciding, be able to defend your decision by offering good reasons for your action (or inaction).


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