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Home > Publications > Quill > Adherence to ethics key to restoring faith


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Friday, March 28, 2008
Adherence to ethics key to restoring faith

Clint Brewer

Journalism and the media in these days of rapidly developing digital technology, self-publishing and the incredible advances of the Internet seem like the Wild, Wild West.

Certainly, the world has gotten smaller and access to the kind of publishing apparatus once the purview of newspaper companies that owned printing presses and broadcast companies with FCC licenses has grown.

Now, individuals with access to the Web and the ability to write, report, analyze and pontificate can gain a worldwide audience if what they have to say resonates.

It is a major advance in the arena of free speech. As Wall Street and countless news reports have noted, it is putting a hurt on the returns of traditional media companies.

During these times of change, journalists will do what they can to survive. New businesses will be started, old ones may close, and staffs will be trimmed to reflect the leaner and perhaps meaner times.

I would argue to my fellow journalists, whether you are the lowliest reporter or the most powerful corporate captain, that the practice of ethical journalism is what can help separate media entities from the proverbial pack.

After a very painful process, leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists came out of the 1996 convention with the Society’s Code of Ethics.

Like many documents in American history that help shape the course of human events, the SPJ Code of Ethics is a simple, well-written guide. It states plainly the modern journalists’ rules of engagement, and its words of wisdom are timeless — more relevant now than ever before.

Advances in technology are always supposed to make our lives easier, but that never seems to entirely be the case.

Certainly, the Internet has made publishing easier for those who wish to embark on a solo journey into the world of media. The Web has also made it easier for “staff” journalists to compete across platforms: Broadcasters can write prose, and print journalists can go in front of the camera.

The Web has also made the speed with which journalists can publish lightning quick. There is no waiting for the next newscast or tomorrow’s edition. Report, write, edit, drag and drop copy and pictures. Then hit “create” or “publish” and the story “populates” your company’s Web site. There is no waiting.

Keeping the profession’s gold standard for ethics in mind can serve as a helpful counterbalance to the newfound speed with which we can publish.

The SPJ Code of Ethics asks difficult questions and makes deep demands of us on our path to publish: “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm,” “act independently,” “be accountable.” These snippets of advice may seem like simple concepts, inherent to the journalistic process, but they are not.

As new technology puts a greater and growing ability for journalists, both staff and independent, to publish in faster and more diverse ways, we need to reconsider these tenets again and again within the context of this new world order.

At the same time, our companies need to consider the value of ethical journalism not just from a moral standpoint, but also as a way to position a venture in the marketplace.

Amid the morass of celebrity news, gotcha stories, gossip and innuendo that dominate the mores and priorities of the larger media that encompasses both journalism and entertainment, I would argue there is a market pendulum swinging back in the favor of ethics in journalism.

Despite the American public’s seemingly endless thirst for the tripe offered today online and more traditionally at the grocery store tabloid rack, there is also a well-documented dissatisfaction with the news media.

Study after study of the American public’s feelings on their country’s media for the past decade suggests severe distrust. This sentiment exists despite the tendency by media companies that own and run journalistic organs to continually pander to that lowest common denominator.

The more we give our audience what they seemingly want, the more they distrust our efforts.

I would argue that in this brave new world, there is a growing place for journalists and journalism companies to publicly hang their hats on operating under the tenets of ethical journalism. We offer our Society’s Code of Ethics as that guide.

At some point, even the Wild West was conquered. At some point, our audience will en masse begin to discern the difference online between media entities that offer meaningful news and redeeming social commentary as opposed to those that simply stir the pot and appeal to our lesser angels.

Success can be found in the former as well as the latter.

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