In the wake of ethical violations, SPJ calls for public dialogue
CONTACT:Robert Leger, President, (417) 836-1113-office, (417) 425-9140-cell or firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary Hill, Ethics Committee Chair, (651) 642-4437 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- The deception, plagiarism and fabrications practiced by New York Times reporter Jayson Blair is the most high-profile example in a string of recent unethical practices in journalism. A public that has already expressed a growing mistrust of the media now has more reason to believe we journalists “just make things up” to suit our purposes. It is time for a far bigger discussion of journalism ethics, by both journalists and the public.
In addition to the Blair case at the New York Times:
Two reporters at the Salt Lake Tribune were fired after acknowledging they sold information about the Elizabeth Smart case to the National Enquirer, in violation of newspaper policy. Editor James Shelledy later resigned in the furor that followed the revelations.
Morley Safer, Walter Cronkite and Aaron Brown agreed to do voiceovers for what amounted to infomercials paid for by a drug company to air on PBS stations. The three eventually backed out of the deals when ethics objections were raised.
Steven Glass, the former New Republic writer who was fired after being caught fabricating much of his work, resurfaced with a book of fiction built on the facts of his life. His ethical lapses appear only to have advanced his career.
To its credit, the Tribune has commissioned an outside examination of its handling of the two reporters, led by SPJ member and former Freedom of Information chair Joel Campbell. The Times laid out its dirty laundry in an exceptional four-page package detailing what is known so far about Blair’s misdeeds. “This is a good first step in setting the record straight,” SPJ Ethics Chair Gary Hill says. “Far more reporting will be needed as the depth of this scandal unfolds, but it is the right thing to do. The SPJ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to ‘Be Accountable’ and to ‘Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.’”
Times Executive Editor Howell Raines has promised to correct the record and create a task force of newsroom employees to learn from the debacle. By the Times’ own account there appears to be much to be learned. How can an employee who made so many mistakes have continued to be rapidly advanced? Why did editors not exchange pertinent information about performance issues? How did it escape everyone’s attention that receipts were filed from the wrong cities? Why when stories were factually challenged did editors not get to the truth about Blair’s unnamed sources?
“The news media, as well as journalism associations and journalism schools, should begin
thinking of — and addressing — the problem from two directions: the motivations of those committing these gross ethical violations and the institutional procedures of the news organizations that don’t give them the kind of oversight they need, whether it be closer monitoring, assistance on skills or personal support and coaching,” notes SPJ Ethics Committee member Peter Sussman. “Usually, plagiarism and fabrication are continuing problems, not single-instance infractions. The problems are both personal and institutional, and the solutions must be as well.”
Conversations about ethical transgressions should occur not only in the Times newsroom. They need to occur in every American newsroom, and journalists need to invite the public to be part of the discussion, says SPJ President Robert Leger. “SPJ recently sponsored its first National Ethics in Journalism Week because we saw a need for a greater emphasis on ethics. Reports of these transgressions all surfaced during or just after Ethics Week. Perhaps we don’t need an Ethics Week, but an Ethics Year.”
The SPJ Code of Ethics exhorts journalists to “clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.” We must do this, especially the dialogue with the public, to have any hope of regaining the trust that had been eroded by these recent transgressions, Leger and Hill say.