Monday, May 10, 2010

The Five Fundamentals of Journalism Ethics

In a field as frantically fast-paced as the news business, it is absolutely vital to develop a personal ethical code in preparation for the dilemmas that journalists will inevitably face. In such pressing scenarios, ethical conduct is often overlooked in favor of other alternatives, including childish desires for attention or suspected fame, particularly in the age of the World Wide Web.

Journalism ethics are of rising importance in the digital age due to the instantaneous publishing methods and overwhelming lack of professionally trained and educated gatekeepers. While readers must always be skeptical of the material that they are presented, the onus is also on writers to be accountable for what they publish, as that material is now available to larger, more widespread audiences than ever before.

All bloggers and journalists alike should be mindful of their content, but professional journalists have an obligation to continue to be ethical, for they are still the predominant news source. Readers expect ethical decision-making from journalists, and they have a right to do so. In order to fulfill such expectations, journalists must carefully align their loyalties and reach the premier stage of moral development. If such tasks are accomplished, journalists will earn the respect of their audience, colleagues, sources and themselves.

Listen to Dean Wright, Reuters' Global Editor for Ethics, Innovation and News Standards, discuss journalism ethics and their importance in the digital age.

Though it may seem like a daunting objective, by following my Five Fundamentals of Journalism Ethics, I believe that, as a professional journalist, I can simplify this complex assignment and lead a rewarding career.

Report the Truth (and Nothing But)

What is a journalist if he/she fails in the task of reporting only the truth? To answer my own question, that “journalist” would be a disgrace to the profession. The number one job of journalists has been and always will be to report accurately. As media critic Walter Lippmann famously said in (his 1920 collection of essays) Liberty and the News, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

While such a task may seem simple on the surface, we are now in the digital age, meaning many writers, particularly online bloggers, publish first and then fact check later, if at all. If journalists follow this method, the profession’s future looks bleak, as they would instantly fall to the level of the tens of millions of bloggers that already provide commentary and analysis on the Web with typically no accurate, original reporting. Even though bloggers may be growing in popularity in recent years, journalists are still the ones doing the hard-hitting, truthful reporting, and for the profession to survive the transformation to the online medium, this trend must continue.

To assist in attaining this vital level of factual reporting, journalists must always fact-check all material presented in an article before its publication. This includes verifying the spelling of names and calling the interviewee to verify quotes, among other things. When publishing a quote, also be sure to include the entire statement and do not cherry pick selected words and/or sentences that portray the source in a false light. If for some reason a mistake slips through the cracks and something non-factual is published, be sure to correct the record quickly and admit fault for the mistake.

In addition, always provide both sides a chance to be heard in a piece on a contentious issue or event. For example, if one were to write a story that documents and exposes a politician’s extramarital affair, be sure to at least give the politician a chance to respond to the allegations before publication.

Lastly, do not misrepresent. Avoid misleading headlines that appear to show guilt because all readers may simply view the headline and make an assumption about the article and not read it in its entirety. Take a look at this below example in which The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart exposes Fox News host Neil Cavuto for using misleading question mark titles.

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The Question Mark
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In this example, viewers may simply be flipping through the channels and see a misleading question mark graphic on the bottom of the screen (i.e., “Is The Liberal Media Helping To Fuel Terror?”) and assume that it is true. Such titles are misleading and should be avoided at all costs because, in the end, it is more important to be truthful than to employ attention-gathering headlines.

In the arena of truth telling, it is important for journalists to practice the Judeo-Christian ethical principle in which one should “love thy neighbor as yourself.” Journalists clearly would not want to be misrepresented or have lies told about them, so it is important for those in the profession to handle all news material carefully. It does not take much for a journalist, especially one at a popular publication, to ruin someone’s reputation, but before doing so, he/she must ensure that all content presented is accurate.

Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative should also be applied, as followers of this theory “act on the maxim which [they] will to become a universal law.” Nearly everyone could agree that lies, misrepresentations and other forms of unfairness should not exist in both journalism and society. Thus, journalists should stick to reporting the truth as if required by law.

As the ethical code of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) also dictates, the staple of the journalism profession is truth telling, and that is a facet that can never be compromised.

Act Independently

Similar to the tenets of the SPJ code, it is also integral that journalists act independently of corporate loyalties and government officials. Journalists must remember that their primary loyalty is to their readers, not their advertisers or the politicians that they may cover. In order to provide a check on these government officials and other sources of power, journalists cannot get too comfortable with their sources, for the more comfortable they get, the more likely they are to not want to publish information that portrays that individual in a negative light.

In the 1973 documentary I.F. Stone’s Weekly, legendary independent journalist Isidor Feinstein Stone talks about this dilemma and how it is necessary for journalists to remain a safe distance between themselves and the politicians they cover. The documentary then shows one journalist—ABC News White House correspondent Tom Jarriel—failing in this regard, as he is enjoying a tennis match with President Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler.

Journalists are expected to serve as watchdogs of sources of power, ensuring that those higher ups do not abuse that power. If they fail in doing so, there is no check on those top officials, and this essentially allows them to abuse their power at their own will. Thus, it is of incredible importance that journalists attain professional relationships with their sources, particularly those that hold crucial positions. They must find a delicate balance; they must be close enough to the source to be trusted in receiving critical information and disseminating it accurately, but at the same time, they must also keep a safe distance so that they do not allow a relationship to decide which information is published and which is not.

It is absolutely necessary that journalists always reveal conflicts of interest and that news organizations remain wary of these conflicts in delegating who is to cover what events. In its 2000 election coverage, Fox News failed miserably in this aspect, hiring Republican candidate George W. Bush’s first cousin, John Prescott Ellis, to head its election decision team. This is despite the fact that Ellis, formerly an op-ed contributor at The Boston Globe, wrote in a July 3, 1999, column: “I am loyal to my cousin, Gov. George Bush. I put that loyalty to anyone outside my immediate family…There is no way for you to know if I am telling you the truth about George W. Bush’s presidential campaign because in my case, my loyalty goes to him and not to you.”

At 2:16 a.m. EST on November 8, 2000, Ellis instructed Fox News to call the presidency for Bush, and within four minutes, NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC had all followed suit. The troubling aspect of this scenario was that Ellis instructed the network to make the projection after a phone call with Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who was also Ellis’s first cousin and George W. Bush’s brother. After the phone call ended, according to multiple recollections in David Moore’s novel How to Steal an Election: The Inside Story of How George Bush’s Brother and Fox Network Miscalled the 2000 Election and Changed the Course of History, Ellis infamously said: “Jebbie says we got it! Jebbie says we go it!”

Below, multiple media critics reflect on the importance of the call, as interviewed for Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed documentary.

Another instance of family ties influencing election coverage came that same year, when Fox’s Carl Cameron, before an interview with George W. Bush, reflects on his wife’s experiences campaigning for the Governor’s presidency. Again, this clip originally appeared in the Outfoxed documentary.

In these two cases, neither Ellis or Cameron should have even been allowed to cover either event, reflecting the importance of not only journalists to disclose these conflicts of interests but also for news organizations to act appropriately on them. Both had obvious rooting interests in Bush’s favor, so they are inherently less likely to perform their job as thoroughly, fairly or aggressively as they would have if the conflict did not exist.

In terms of journalistic independence, journalists must adopt John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility in which they “seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” The majority of people want honest answers from their country’s leaders, and they want a check on government officials and other higher ups to ensure that they are indeed doing what they should be doing. In order to be this aggressive watchdog, journalists must remain independent from those that they cover, or the end result will be influenced, not impartial.

Be Transparent

In addition to acting independently, journalists must be transparent, as well. As the above post indicates, journalists must disclose conflicts of interest, especially ones that involve family ties. Other areas of conflicts of interest may also exist, and it necessary that those are also disclosed in the issue of transparency.

Take the example of Fox’s Glenn Beck. Beck has repeatedly used his one-hour weekday Fox News forum to encourage viewers to buy gold and even noted that, during one broadcast, the price of gold shot up by $50. If such analysis was rooted in rational thought and extensive research, then Beck would be acting honestly and would be at no ethical fault. However, Beck happens to be a spokesman for the gold vendor Goldline International and has appeared in a company advertisement that has been featured prominently on Beck’s own Web site. Below, Jon Stewart exposes Glenn Beck’s conspicuous conflict of interest.

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With the rise of online journalism and blogs, transparency has become a major ethical issue in the journalism field. Even though the World Wide Web provides ample sources of information free to be attained via simple search queries, many journalists have failed miserably in taking advantage of the attribution opportunities that the Web provides, like linking to their sources of information. This allows readers to independently judge the sources and whether or not they see them as reliable. The Web makes these attribution methods very simple, yet many journalists have failed in taking advantage of them, which is clearly a journalistic no-no. All information that was not received firsthand must be attributed, whether writing for print or online.

Furthermore, it is of untold importance that all content is labeled. As online journalism continues to grow, news organizations are exploring numerous different sources of revenue, particularly in the advertising realm. Many online newspapers have, for instance, subscribed to contextual advertisement providers, like Vibrant Media, which provide ads in boxes below or beside the article, as pop-up windows, or as hyperlinked words embedded in the actual article. These advertisements are placed based on algorithms that calculate their relevance to the article’s content. Since they are so similar to the content within the article, it is necessary that these advertisements are labeled as such in an attempt to avoid confusing the reader. News content should be labeled as news content, and advertisements should be labeled as advertisements.

This extensive labeling should not stop with differentiating advertisements and stories, though. Bloggers and other opinion writers should provide disclaimers that note their points of view, especially if they are writing about politics. This way, readers know what to expect upon arriving at the page and will not inaccurately perceive it as an impartial source of information. Moreover, if linking to a partisan site, be sure to inform the readers.

When speaking of the ethical issue of transparency, journalists must abide by Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative in which one “act[s] on the maxim which [he/she] will[s] to become a universal law.” If journalists or bloggers were reading someone else’s content, they would want to know where they were getting their information and if biases and/or conflicts of interest existed. Thus, it is important for all journalists or bloggers, for the sake of a few extra minutes, to attribute sources of information whenever possible. This would obviously change if the source was forced to remain anonymous because then the journalist could not cite the original source by name. Also, if biases or conflicts of interest do exist, they must be disclosed in the interest of fairness.

If journalists utilize these attribution methods, they will only further their credibility in the eyes of the public and their peers.

Be Selectively Sensitive

Even though the SPJ code tells journalists to “minimize harm,” this premise is inherently vague. In most instances, journalists should take steps to minimize harm, yet there are occurrences when such a motto should not enter the journalist’s mind.

Let’s start with the former. Journalists should be sensitive and look to minimize harm in instances of tragedy. When interviewing a widow or a family member of an individual that has recently been killed, journalists must be kind, gentile and accepting. They should not be aggressive in searching for answers that the interviewee prefers not to touch on.

In the case below, Oprah Winfrey interviews Vicki Kennedy, wife of 17 years to the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who had died three months earlier. In one instance, Oprah asks Mrs. Kennedy what the late Senator’s last words were, but Mrs. Kennedy speaks of her wishes to not disclose them, and Oprah handles the situation correctly, not pushing the envelope with a guest in a fragile state of mind.

In this case, journalists should employ John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” in which Rawls argued that “justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations.” When placed in situations like the one Oprah was in, journalists should try to put themselves in the widow’s shoes before determining their course of action during the interview. Oprah was, in my view, successful in doing so, as she recognized that Mrs. Kennedy was in a difficult state of mind and decided not to carry out the interview aggressively.

A contrast to the Vicki Kennedy story does exist, though, and these are situations where the journalist should not be concerned with being sensitive to the grief-ridden interviewee.

Consider the example of Bernard L. Madoff, whose extensive list of crimes is documented below, as originally written by Diana B. Henriques of The New York Times.

Bernard L. Madoff is facing life in prison for operating a vast Ponzi scheme that began at least 20 years ago and consumed billions of dollars of other people's money.

While his fate will not be certain until he is sentenced, his lawyer told a federal judge on Tuesday that he intended to plead guilty on Thursday to all the criminal charges that federal prosecutors had filed against him -- a list that could yield a prison sentence of 150 years.

Mr. Madoff was arrested Dec. 12 at his Manhattan home by federal agents who accused him of running what was perhaps the largest fraud in Wall Street's history. The scheme zigzagged across the world, drawing in foreign banks, hedge funds, charities, celebrities and ordinary retirees who had entrusted their savings to his investment firm.

The charges, made public late Tuesday, offered a few fresh details about how Mr. Madoff conducted his long-running fraud. And they raised its price tag from his own estimate of $50 billion to nearly $65 billion, the total amount that thousands of customers were told they had in their accounts at his firm.

But left unanswered were questions about the involvement of family members and employees and the treatment of favored investors.

To sustain his fraud, prosecutors said, Mr. Madoff assembled an ill-trained and inexperienced clerical staff, directed them to "generate false and fraudulent documents," told lies and supplied false records to regulators, and shuffled hundreds of millions of dollars from bank to bank to create the illusion of active trading. The government said Mr. Madoff ordered multimillion-dollar bank transfers in part "to give the appearance that he was conducting securities transactions in Europe on behalf of the investors, when, in fact, he was not."

And, in an accusation that extends his crime's shadow to the edges of the business where his brother and sons worked, prosecutors accused Mr. Madoff of using some of the money he gathered through his Ponzi scheme to support the supposedly legitimate wholesale stock trading operation that made his name on Wall Street.

Specifically, prosecutors said that Mr. Madoff "caused more than $250 million" he collected through his Ponzi scheme from at least 2002 through 2008 "to be directed, through a series of wire transfers, to the operating accounts that funded the operations of these businesses."

The government also charged that he had money transferred from his firm's London office "to purchase property and services for the personal use and benefit" of himself, his family members and his associates.

Finally, prosecutors said that Mr. Madoff -- whose investors prized his steady single-digit annual returns -- actually had promised select clients extraordinarily high returns, as much as 46 percent, to lure them in.

In all, Mr. Madoff was charged with 11 felony counts, including securities fraud, money laundering and perjury. Under federal sentencing guidelines, those crimes would yield a life sentence for the 70-year-old trader.

If Madoff, in light of his guilty plea, had accepted a media interview, there would be no justifiable reason for the interviewer to be sensitive of his situation. Yes, the interviewer should be fair to Madoff and allow him the opportunity to explain his side of the story, but at the same time, a journalist can do this without going out of his/her way in order to appease a man who was recently sentenced to 150 years in prison. The interviewer should demand answers and not let the interviewee off the hook, as Oprah did in a much more passive interview with the late Senator Kennedy’s widow.

In cases like this one, journalists should subscribe to John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility and “seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Even though Madoff may not appreciate the journalist asking tough questions, the public’s right to know topples his concern. He committed a dreadful act, and a clear majority would favor the journalist pressing him for answers in comparison to letting him off the hook. Thus, the journalist must be aggressive in his/her pursuit of the truth, demonstrating that his/her primary loyalty is indeed to the public.

This ethics fundamental, which, to an extent, goes against the grain, seemingly places journalists in a delicate situation as to which interviewees deserve special treatment and which do not. However, that is not actually the case, for a pretty clear line separates a widow from a convicted felon. If journalists understand this line and carry out their duties accordingly, they will garner increased appreciation from the public.

Place Ethics over the Law

The law is an effective set of documents that guide the lives of practically all members of society, but it should not always do so for journalists. Just because something is illegal does not mean that it is not the ethical thing to do, for the law and ethics are two distinct entities. A law-guiding approach is frankly too simplistic and does not account for peculiar circumstances.

To this day, the United States does not possess a federal shield law, making it legal for journalists in some states to be forced to testify and name their sources. If they refuse to testify (if subpoenaed) and fail to produce the name(s) of their source(s) under question, then journalists can be held in contempt of court and even be forced to serve prison time. This, of course, depends on the applicable state, for some states give reporters an absolute privilege, most give them a qualified privilege, and some do not even have shield laws on the books.

The national shield law debate was brought to the media forefront in the summer of 2005, as New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for refusing to name her source after the name of a CIA covert operative (Valerie Plame) was released. Even though it was Washington Post columnist Robert Novak who released the name in a July 14, 2003, column, Miller was held in contempt of court after she refused to testify before a grand jury in connection with the leak and ultimately served 85 days in jail. Miller was released after her source, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, waived confidentiality and gave her permission to testify.

Although they did not end up serving jail time, San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada were threatened with 18 months (of jail time) in 2006. The two writers refused to reveal their source to a federal grand jury regarding how they obtained leaked grand jury testimony that proved steroid use by baseball slugger Barry Bonds. Below, PBS documents the story.

Until a federal shield law is adopted, journalists must continue to be courageous and not reveal their confidential sources. When journalists agree to protect the identity of a source, they must carry out that promise, even if it means serving jail time. In this case, the primary loyalty is to the source, not a grand jury.

When ethics trumps law in journalism, reporters reach the sixth and highest stage of moral development, passing the fifth stage of a legalistic view of society. At the sixth stage, journalists appeal to a universal ethical principle, and here, this involves the Judeo-Christian ethic, which states that people should “love thy neighbor as yourself.” If the rolls were reversed and the journalists were placed in a situation where they provided the confidential information to a source, they would probably feel like they had been abandoned if the source betrayed them and released their name in order to avoid jail time.

The recent trend of reporters willing to serve a prison sentence to protect the identity of their sources is encouraging to those in the profession. If a journalist really cares about his/her loyalties and ethics, then he/she will never desert a source, no matter what the end result.