I hope we never live to see the day
when a thing is as bad as some of our newspapers make it. (Will Rogers)
Editor: a person employed by a
newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to
see that the chaff is printed. (Abby Aronowitz)
any profession, there are unethical people and unethical organizations. But while I may be too myopic to accurately
analyze the ethical practices of my own profession, I can say that -- in the 31
years since I was last a reporter -- there appears to have been a steady
deterioration of adherence to the principles taught in Journalism School, by
mentors to young journalists, and by various journalism associations. I believe certain factors have exacerbated
this decline in the past 5-10 years in particular, to include:
of news demand via the Internet, driving the need to compete for news audiences
reporters (largely as a result of falling ad revenue), so they are spread thin
in terms of copy length and ability to carefully research stories.
growing popularity of sensationalism in the United States in particular, to the
point where even the most staid media outlets look to entertain as much as they
do to inform.
backlash has started to occur within the journalistic community, sparking the
formation of organizations such as FactCheck.org,
PolitiFact.org and the Center for Media and Democracy. The Ethical Journalism Initiative
is attempting to "rekindle old values in media worldwide." A remarkable throwback to the days of true
investigative reporting has appeared at ProPublica.org. There is hope.
I want to do here, however, is give anyone dealing with unethical journalists
an invaluable tool that can be used, now, for mitigating damage -- the Society of Professional
Journalists' (SPJ) Code of Ethics.
It was designed to prevent damage from occurring but, even after the
fact, I believe it can and should be used for damage control.
HOW TO USE THE SPJ'S
CODE OF ETHICS
is the Preamble to SPJ's Code of Ethics:
Members of the
Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the
forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the
journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and
comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all
media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.
Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.
Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this
code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice.
you imagine any mainstream journalist daring to say that he or she does not
support those principles, even if not a member of the SPJ? Other than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, of course, who's been
quoted as saying that he and his team "travel in fake ethics." Ironically, Stewart has pulled the covers on
innumerable journalistic faux pas and is perceived as one of the most credible
on-air figures in America.
21st Century communications, of course, we have traditional media
and non-traditional media (e.g., social media), the latter (unless associated
with a traditional media outlet) totally
ungoverned by any ethics code.
if you understand the Code, you can go back to a reporter, an editor, a news
director or an editorial board, and say, "Hey, this practice of yours is a
violation of the SPJ's Code of Ethics.
We sure you don't mean to do that -- do you?" All non-journalists involved with news
development -- sources, spokespersons, PR representatives -- must become
assertive endorsers and users of the Code to which journalists allegedly
don't do that,
we're saying, "Go ahead, do me harm, I'll just whine about it." Or as Stewart might put it, "How far do
you want me to bend over?" We're
enabling the behavior we abhor.
Code is divided into four main sections:
Seek Truth and Report
am going to print every bullet point in the Code and, when applicable, follow
it in with my italicized commentary, to include how it might apply to real-life
ethical violations that I've witnessed or had reported to me (by multiple
independent sources, of course!). And,
in the interest of my own ethical disclosure, please note that I am writing
this as an editorial, an opinion piece (see the Code on that subject).
then, is the balance of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of
Ethics, with my comments. If you see no commentary,
it's because I had nothing to add, but that doesn't preclude the possibility
that each tenet of the Code might be useful in challenging media coverage.
Seek Truth and Report
should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting
the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid
inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
Commentary: the guidance I was given by my first mentor
in journalism, columnist Jack Anderson, was to use "multiple independent sources
in a position to know" to test accuracy.
That latter phrase can mean, literally, a source was a witness. But it can also mean the source is an expert
(whose credentials have been verified, an easy thing for a reporter to mess up
when in a hurry) or a document that in and of itself needs to be established as
authentic (it's way too easy to forge documents with a computer!). Challenge journalists on this, ask them how
they tested the accuracy of their information.
seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to
allegations of wrongdoing.
Commentary: The following are just a few examples
of how this often isn't done:
- Calling the main
switchboard of an organization after hours and making no further attempt (e.g.,
going to the organization's website) to identify a media contact (if you don't
put your media contact on your website, then it's your problem.
- Contacting a source
30 minutes or less before deadline.
avoiding an organization's or individual's known PR contact and then claiming that the desired spokesperson was
unavailable for comment.
sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as
possible on sources' reliability.
Commentary: A certain environmental organization, in
years past, engaged in the infamous practice of quoting "John Jones, Ph.D." as
if he were an expert on the relevant science.
The media went right along with that charade until those being
criticized did some research and found that "Dr. Jones'" degree was in History
or some other completely unrelated-to-the-story field.
question sources' motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions
attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
Commentary: It's always risky to speak "off-the-record"
or "not for attribution," but, if you do, I strongly recommend getting the
agreement in writing (at least email).
Or you may find yourself at the wrong end of a convenient misunderstanding
about what you agreed.
certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video,
audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should
not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
Commentary: You can really hoist a news organization on
this petard. Headlines and news teases,
in particular, are seldom written by the people who reported the story and are
designed to draw your attention to the story, often at the damaging expense of
one or more subjects of the article. I
have seen articles that, when read in depth, seemed fairly innocuous, yet to
read the headline you would believe that horrendous crimes have been committed
- by you or your organization. Guess
what the public remembers?
distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical
clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
Commentary: News organizations should have made some good faith effort to
ensure that photographic material provided by outside sources has not been
doctored or manipulated.
misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to
tell a story, label it.
undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when
traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as
part of the story.
Commentary: I believe this should apply
Ambush interviews if
used as the media's first approach.
Undercover consumer investigations
conducted before the target organization has been directly approached for
Any type of sneaky
journalism when the information being sought is not, in fact, "vital to the
the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even
when it is unpopular to do so.
their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
Commentary: This applies, for example, to the reality
that many media organizations demonstrate a clear anti-business bias, i.e., if
a business is being criticized, the default assumption is that the critic is
right. That's a clear violation of the
SPJ's Code. I don't think I've ever seen
a consumer reporter, for example, write a piece that said, "Mrs. Smith told us
that she'd been ripped off by The West Company, but our investigation
determined that Mrs. Smith was lying. If
you come to us with false information, consumers, we'll report on you instead!" There are other types of cultural value
issues, of course, such as blatantly favoring one political party's viewpoints
while claiming to be an impartial news organization.
stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual
orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be
Commentary: When it comes to complaints, consumers often have
a louder voice - with the media - than businesses or other organizations. That's a good thing for consumers who have
been wronged, but a bad thing for organizations about whom some consumers are
making false allegations. Real adherence
to this principle should, I believe, mean that the "voiceless" get an equal
voice, not a superior voice.
Additionally, some sources of information, such as the Better Business
Bureau, are portrayed as being a lot more official than they actually are and,
as a result, many "average citizens" think the BBB is a governmental agency
instead of a member-supported private organization with its own credibility
between advocacy and news reporting. Commentary and commentary should be
labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Commentary: This is another area in which many media
outlets do a dismal job of disclosure and policing, particularly when it comes
to columnists. For our edification, The
Boston Globe, provides this description of the difference between a columnist
and a news reporter:
A reporter gathers
facts and information on an event of public interest and then presents them in
a readable style to inform the reader. The reporter is supposed to provide
objective observation about events that editors deem newsworthy. Reporters are
often assigned to "beats," or particular areas, such as business,
politics, energy, or education.
A columnist gives
opinions, usually his or her own. A columnist is expected to gather accurate
information, just as a reporter does, and then comment on that information. A
columnist has more latitude and license than a reporter and is not constrained
by the rule of impartiality that governs news writing. While they are subject
to the editing and approval of one or more editors, columnists can write just
about what they please, as long as it remains within the boundaries of good
taste and public acceptability, as defined by the paper.
However, knowing full
well that most readers aren't aware of these definitions, many columnists
present their opinions as if they were news.
It is incumbent on both the columnist and the publisher to educate
readers in a more transparent manner - with each column.
news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the
open and that government records are open to inspection.
journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of
compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use
special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or
Commentary: If a media inquiry appears to be heading in a
direction that will harm your reputation and/or bottom line, you certainly
qualify as someone who "may be affected adversely by news coverage." And you may also be an "inexperienced
source." Yet I can't recall a single
time a reporter appeared to genuinely "show compassion" for my crisis-impacted
clients when they were on the hot seat.
Call them on it!
sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy
Commentary: So if your factory has just
burned down, friends and co-workers killed or injured, and the TV crews want to
get in the face of survivors, this tenet lets you say no and explain why.
that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit
of the news is not a license for arrogance.
Commentary: The next time a reporter starts getting
arrogantly demanding on the phone, you have recourse.
that private people have a greater right to control information about
themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or
attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's
good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Probably 90 percent of the media violates this one.
cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
Commentary: Unfortunately, in the rush to "scoop" the competition,
media outlets often strain the definition of "judicious".
a criminal suspect's fair trial rights with the public's right to be informed.
should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to
conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Commentary: For example, I'm aware of a columnist whose
sister worked for an organization related to one subject of a story she was
covering, but that relationship wasn't disclosed until external pressure was
brought to bear.
free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage
Commentary: For example, wearing
a political campaign button or any other form of political partisanship on the
gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary
employment, political involvement, public office and service in community
organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
Commentary: I know of a government employee who also
wrote for notoriously conservative publications and constantly used her media
pulpit in favor of her boss, whom she knew was soon to campaign for state
Commentary: See the first bullet point in
vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their
pressure to influence news coverage.
Commentary: I think this principle is generally
well-observed with regard to advertisers, but when the "special interest" is,
for example, a major lobbying group whose viewpoints support the political
leaning of a specific media outlet, I'm less confident that favored treatment
won't be given.
wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for
are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic
the public to voice grievances against the news media.
Commentary: Have you seen any communication from your
favorite media outlets inviting you to do this (except, perhaps, buried
somewhere it's not likely to be seen by most)?
mistakes and correct them promptly.
Commentary: To truly correct a mistake, the correction
must have the same prominence as the mistake.
If someone is damaged by mistaken information in a page 1 newspaper
story, but the mistake is published on page 34, that is clearly not a true
correction. It is merely technical
compliance with this tenet and I'm sure is not what the SPJ had in mind.
unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
Commentary: Media worldwide are quick to report the story
when a reporter at some prominent newspaper is caught falsifying information,
but how often do any of them report on the unethical practices of their own
staff? It's up to us to push for this to
happen more often.
by the same high standards to which they hold others.
Commentary: If a media outlet is getting preachy on a
topic, it's worth looking to see if they're walking their talk on that subject
and/or related topics. And this last
bullet applies to you, if you intend to use the SPJ's Code of Ethics in the
manner I suggest. Most professions have
membership organizations that establish suggested or even mandatory ethics
codes. Whether or not we are members of
those organizations, it would behoove us to walk our talk as well before
challenging others' ethics, else our glass houses shatter around us.
WHAT TO DO WITH CODE
next time you perceive what you believe to be an ethical violation by a
journalist reporting on you, your company or your client/customer, evaluate the
violation in the context of the SPJ's Code.
In many cases, you'll conclude that more than one tenet of the Code was
Write it out. Outline the journalist or media outlet's
behavior, what Code sections were violated, and why you think the behavior was
a violation of those sections.
Appeal to the media
outlet. For this you need someone who understands
media relations and how to approach different types of media. In some cases, an appeal directly to a
reasonable reporter may do the trick, in other cases you may have to take the
issue "to the top," such as an editorial board.
Evaluate feedback. After your media appeal, do you still think
there were violations? Did the media
agree to make things right in a satisfactory manner? If so, congratulations, that's a "win." If not, see step 4.
Fight back in the
court of public opinion. The traditional
media no longer have the monopoly on communication with broad audiences. The Internet provides each of us with many
ways to become our own publisher. Press
releases are inexpensive or even free to distribute, depending on the service
used. How many media outlets would like
to see a news headline, prominent blog headline or Tweet with the message "The
(name of city) Times refuses to comply with journalistic ethics code"? I'm sure your own PR consultants, working
closely with legal counsel to keep them on the safe side of defamation laws,
can come up with many effective tactics.
Hint: One such tactic is to put
all allegations into a civil lawsuit, if there's any basis for filing one. Then you (and other media outlets) can quote
directly from the complaint and face little risk of defaming anyone.
you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." (1960's activist Stokely Carmichael,
although his wife is reported to have written the speech)
have, on a small scale, begun to employ the SPJ's Code of Ethics on behalf of
my clients. I intend to start doing that
a lot more, effective immediately. But
it will take some critical mass of us doing the same thing to begin to have a
long-term impact on the traditional media with which we interact. Remember that the goal of crisis management
is to avoid damage when we can, and minimize it even when we can't. We can and must start using this tool to
achieve both of those goals.
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., editor of the "Crisis Manager" newsletter and author of "Keeping the Wolves at Bay - Media Training." Contact: email@example.com.