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Home > Reading Room > The bad and the ugly: An examination of ethical lapses of the past year

SPJ Reading Room

The bad and the ugly: An examination of ethical lapses of the past year

By Christine Tatum

It is in the spirit of educating the public and helping journalists make more ethical decisions that SPJ’s National Ethics Committee reviewed news accounts of ethical lapses that occurred since September 2006 and stirred some of the most passionate debate within the news industry.

The committee grouped the lapses into larger categories where journalists appear to have had the most trouble meeting ideals set forth by SPJ’s ethics code.

For the first time, the committee is publicizing its findings. The categories, supported here by specific examples, are listed in no particular order.

Political activism. A commendable MSNBC.com investigation revealed that at least 140 journalists contributed to political parties, movements or candidates. Many journalists explained why they felt they had done nothing wrong and nothing contrary to their news organization’s policies.

Ten Florida journalists accepted payment from the federal government in exchange for their contributions to television and radio stations that work to undermine Cuban President Fidel Castro’s regime.

SPJ’s ethics code states that journalists should “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The code also encourages journalists to shun “... political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.”

Journalist/Source relationships. Journalists must maintain a healthy distance from people they cover.

A former Telemundo anchorwoman reported about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s marital difficulties without mentioning that she was dating him. The station suspended and reassigned the anchor. When the anchor didn’t show up for her new assignment, the station announced that she had quit her job.

Getting too close to sources sorely compromises a journalist’s ability to “act independently,” as SPJ’s code instructs.

“Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” the code states. And “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility,” the code instructs.”

A former Los Angeles Times editorial page editor selected a Hollywood producer to guest edit a section. At the time, the editorial page editor was dating the producer’s publicist.
The Times’ publisher, who was not aware of the relationship when the producer was invited to contribute to the paper, canceled the section. The publisher cited the appearance of a conflict of interest. The editorial page editor resigned.

A Chicago television reporter was caught on film socializing with a source whose wife was missing and might have been killed. The reporter took her children to the source’s house and was secretly caught on tape by a competing news organization, which later publicized the footage. The reporter, who ultimately lost her job, said she sometimes kept the police informed about the contents of her interviews with the source.

A former MarketWatch columnist resigned to pursue a start-up company. The columnist had not been allowed to write about the business she was starting or about any of the companies that had a relationship to her business. However, the columnist apparently wrote items about the companies doing business with her start-up — and about companies with ties to her start-ups main investor.

A former reporter with the (Riverside, Calif.) Press-Enterprise resigned after admitting that he had accepted gifts from people he covered, including $500 from a city councilman after his house burned down.

“Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment ...” the code dictates.

Plagiarism. It’s unclear whether the number of violations of this fundamental of responsible journalism is on the rise — or if technology is making plagiarism easier to find. CBS News anchor Katie Couric read an item that was posted on her blog — after it was ripped off from The Wall Street Journal. A CBS producer wrote the item for Couric, who read the piece as if sharing her personal thoughts. That’s worth questioning, too.

News/Advertising relationships. Times are tough economically for the news industry, and many organizations are responding with problematic news-advertising hybrids.

For example, the Philadelphia Inquirer runs a business column under a Citizens Bank label. Though the paper says the bank won’t have a say in the column’s content, the appearance suggests otherwise.

The news team at WGME in Portland, Maine, participated in a video segment that promotes a local movie theater and their newscast.

“Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” the code states.

Fairness. Last year, SPJ awarded several journalists at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press an ethics award for resigning in protest of co-publisher Wendy McCaw’s influence on news content. That battle reached a new low when the newspaper ran an unsigned front-page story implying that the paper’s former editor downloaded child pornography on his office computer. The story fell far short of an airtight case and appeared to be bent on attacking the former editor more than serving readers with truth. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources, and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” the code instructs.

Photo manipulation. After the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, news organizations, including People magazine and The New York Post, may have thought they were doing the right thing by altering photos that appeared to show a wounded student’s genitals. They weren’t. The image organizations edited out was actually a tourniquet. Photographs should be respected as a form of truth. “Never distort the content of news photos or video,” the code instructs. “Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible.”

The blur of news and entertainment. NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” series is fraught with ethical problems, such as the hiring of a crusading nonprofit group to set up stings. “Avoid ... staged news events,” the code states. It also urges journalists to “deny favored treatment to ... special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.”

Christine Tatum is national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an assistant features editor at The Denver Post.

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