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Ethics
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Ethics Committee

Quill: Stories About Journalism Ethics
– 10 lessons in journalism ethics
– Journalism’s complicated relationship with transparency
– Sinclair’s ‘teachable moment’ raises even more questions

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.

Ethics Committee chair

Lynn Walsh
Assistant Director
Trusting News Project
Email
@LWalsh
Bio (click to expand) Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning journalist who has worked in investigative, data and TV journalism for more than 10 years. Currently, she is a freelance journalist and the Assistant Director for the Trusting News project, where she works to help rebuild trust between journalists and the public by working with newsrooms to be more transparent about how they do their jobs.

She is a past national president for the Society of Professional Journalists. During her term, she spoke out against threats to the First Amendment while working to protect and defend journalists and journalism. She also serves the journalism organization as a member of SPJ’s FOI committee and is the current Ethics Chair. Lynn was also selected to represent SPJ on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee where she worked to recommend changes to help improve the national FOIA process.

Previously she led the NBC 7 Investigates and NBC 7 Responds teams in San Diego, California for KNSD-TV. Prior to working in California, she was working as data producer and investigative reporter for the E.W. Scripps National Desk producing stories for the 30+ Scripps news organizations across the country. Before moving to the national desk, she worked as the Investigative Producer at WPTV, NewsChannel 5, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

She has won state and local awards as well as multiple Emmy’s for her stories. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Lynn travels around the country, teaching journalists and students about the latest innovative storytelling techniques and how to produce ethical content, no matter the medium.

Lynn is a proud Bobcat Alumna and graduated from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She loves the beach, sunsets, exploring the world and attempting new yoga poses. She believes the glass is half-full, the truth is always out there and that hard work, dedication and personality can make any dream come true.


SPJ Ethics
Committee Members


Lauren Bartlett
Email

Fred Brown
Email

David Cohn

Annie Culver

Elizabeth Donald
Email

Mike Farrell
Email

Paul Fletcher
Email

Michael Lear-Olimpi
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Chris Roberts
Email

Alex Veeneman
Email

Home > Ethics > Ethics Case Studies > Deep Throat, and His Motive

Ethics Case Studies
Deep Throat, and His Motive

WHAT: The Watergate story is considered perhaps American journalism’s defining accomplishment. Two intrepid young reporters for The Washington Post, carefully verifying and expanding upon information given to them by sources they went to great lengths to protect, revealed brutally damaging information about one of the most powerful figures on Earth, the American president. They worked diligently on a story others were too indifferent, or too lazy, to pursue, and their reporting eventually forced Richard Nixon to resign, winning them a Pulitzer Prize as well.

The reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, became icons. After their stories broke in the mid-1970s, enrollment increased at journalism schools. They continue to be celebrated decades later for their integrity in never revealing the name of their principal source, “Deep Throat.” It was not until that source broke his silence in 2005 that anyone knew “Deep Throat” was Mark Felt, a high-ranking official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time he was talking to The Post. And, for some critics, that raised questions.

Question: Is protecting a source more important than revealing all the relevant information about a news story?

WHO: Woodward’s and Bernstein’s promise to protect “Deep Throat’s” identity was fully supported by their executive editor, Ben Bradlee. Together, the three are the major decision-making moral agents in this case.

It was a decision that ultimately affected many stakeholders, most notably Mark “Deep Throat” Felt himself, and of course Woodward and Bernstein, who had made a promise that journalists treat with the highest reverence. President Nixon clearly was a stakeholder, as were others in his administration.

And in this case it also can be argued that the public had a higher stake than it does in many news stories — because of the importance of the information revealed by a source who would not have revealed it had his identity not been kept secret.

WHY: Two major ethical principles are at issue in this very famous case. First is the journalistic credo that granting anonymity to a source is a vow that never should be broken. The other principle, at odds with the first, is that a journalist’s primary duty is to reveal information, not conceal it, and often the source of that information is an important part of the story, suggesting a motive or agenda for the leak.

In this case, some critics have held that Felt, who died in late 2008 at age 95, was manipulating The Post because he wanted to get even with the president for having passed him over for promotion to FBI director after the death of the legendary J. Edgar Hoover.

One analyst, George Friedman, wrote this for an intelligence and strategic consulting firm called stratfor.com: “This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president. Protecting Deep Throat concealed not only an individual, but also the story of the FBI’s role in destroying Nixon.”

HOW: Most journalists consider The Washington Post’s decision to protect Deep Throat an example of journalism at its finest. Working so hard for so long to keep the promise of anonymity allowed information to be revealed that was critically important to the survival of democracy and its need to correct its flaws. The role of a free press is to reveal those shortcomings, after which a responsive government can — or should — make the needed changes. In this case, the cover-up was perhaps more important than the crime itself, because it uncovered flaws in the presidential character. Nixon’s resignation became inevitable — a cathartic moment for the country.

And yet reporters must continue to be very careful about promising anonymity. In some settings — Washington, D.C., in particular — it’s almost impossible to get anyone to talk without making such a promise. But in other areas of the country, where bureaucracy and politics are not so entrenched, news executives insist that promising anonymity should be used only as a last resort, not to break the ice at the beginning of an interview. The source of a leak sometimes is even more interesting than the leaked information, because it may reveal a motive that is less than the epitome of integrity.

— by Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee


Ethics
Ethics Home
SPJ Code of Ethics
News/Articles
Journalism Ethics Book
Case Studies
Committee Position Papers
Ethics Answers
Ethics Hotline
Resources
Ethics Committee

Quill: Stories About Journalism Ethics
– 10 lessons in journalism ethics
– Journalism’s complicated relationship with transparency
– Sinclair’s ‘teachable moment’ raises even more questions

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.

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