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Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Ethics Toolbox

#PointerGate: Trust isn’t blind, but it is quick to fade

By Andrew M. Seaman

My peers in middle school often sent letters asking for autographs to famous athletes. I, on the other hand, wrote letters to Walter Cronkite. My father spent many hours during my childhood explaining to me the role the “most trusted man in American” played in the latter half of the 20th Century.

In November, I had the privilege of representing SPJ at the Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, where the famed broadcaster was born in 1916.

The conference, which included discussions from academics, journalists and historians, was held in the same building as the Walter Cronkite Memorial. In addition to busts and caricatures of Cronkite, the memorial also houses artifacts collected throughout his life, including his certification as a fellow of Sigma Delta Chi (SPJ’s previous name from its fraternity days) from 1970.

I spoke at the conference as part of a panel that also included representatives of the Online News Association and the Radio Television Digital News Association. While SPJ recently approved a new version of our Code of Ethics, ONA and RTDNA are in the middle of their own ethics projects.

While it’s a coincidence that three of the most well-known journalism organizations are undertaking large journalism projects, these projects could not have been better timed.

Whether journalists like it or not, ethical failings don’t occur on islands within the profession. When one journalist damages the trust of readers, viewers or listeners, it hurts the entire profession. Ethical breaches shake the trust people put in journalists.

KSTP-TV, the ABC affiliate in Minneapolis, recently put itself under a spotlight by airing a report that CNN’s Brian Stelter called "shoddy journalism." The report featured a photograph of the city’s mayor and another person pointing at each other. The station said its sources said the hand gesture is a “known” gang sign.

In addition to the claim of the hand gesture being a “known” gang sign being questionable at best, an argument can be made that the story breached several of the ethical standards found in SPJ Code of Ethics.

The story made KSTP and its reporters the brunt of many jokes across the country. Jon Stewart focused an entire segment of his popular weeknight show on the story. Twitter users also dubbed the controversy as #Pointergate.

KSTP felt the immediate fallout from the story and its conduct, but all journalists are affected by these types of controversies that could be avoided by following the Code.

The people who feel harmed or wronged by KSTP’s report may be reluctant to speak with reporters in the future. More broadly, the experience of being involved in a report like this damages those people’s overall trust in journalists and journalism.

Minneapolis and the rest of the country will move on from #Pointergate, but stories like it leave a stain on the journalism profession — as do the ghosts of the Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke scandals.

Between 1998 and 2012, Gallup found the percent of people saying they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in mass media fell from 53 percent from 40 percent.

It’s impossible to attribute the decline in trust and confidence to one specific variable, such as plagiarism and fabrication in journalism, but it’s important to know that the amount of trust and confidence the public puts in media is eroding.

Trust and confidence are based on the ethical decisions people make. If journalists are not following the profession’s best practices, that trust and confidence will continue to erode.

One important step to rebuilding trust is having the confidence to admit mistakes and be accountable. Research shows that there is at least some benefit to a person admitting to mistakes. Doctors who admit to mistakes tend to be sued less for malpractice.

Additionally, it’s important for journalists to support each other in upholding their profession’s best practices. The new revision of the SPJ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to identify ethical breaches — even within their own organizations.

The ethics projects being undertaken by SPJ, ONA and RTDNA should remind journalists about the place they occupy in the world and why their work needs to be based on ethical reporting.

Cronkite was not perfect, but there is a reason he is still known as the “most trusted man in America.” Trust is not blindly given, it must be earned.

Andrew Seaman is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a health/medical reporter for Reuters. Contact him at andrew.m.seaman@gmail.com. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman

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