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Home > Publications > Quill > Journalism industry must return to principles


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Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Journalism industry must return to principles

Quest for profits and ratings has our profession heading down the wrong path

By David Carlson, SPJ President

Journalism, to me, is about helping people.

It’s about telling stories that get laws changed. It’s about telling stories that save lives. It’s about pointing fingers at what needs to be pointed out. It’s about sending criminals to jail and setting the innocent free.

Journalism is about seeking truth and reporting it.

But our industry has strayed somewhat from these principles. Too often, and in too many places, journalism has become about profits and ratings. Too often it has become about political agendas and ax grinding, about entertainment disguised as news, about “spin” and saber-rattling. Too often, and in too many places, journalism has involved another “ism” — plagiarism.

We have trifled with our single most prized possession — credibility — in the pursuit of a few more viewers, a few more listeners or a few more subscribers. This was a large part of my message as I was sworn in as SPJ president in October, and it will continue to be a large part of my message throughout the year.

The short of it is, we’ve allowed our ethics to decay. We’ve come to think that it’s OK to hype a story to make it sound better than it is. We’ve come to think that it’s all right for the TV networks to treat promos for their prime-time entertainment shows as news. We’ve come to think that it’s OK to tell listeners that the interesting story is “coming up next” when we really don’t intend to air it until 20 minutes from now.

I know I am picking on broadcasters, but print journalists had better not get smug, because newspapers do it, too. We do it with story teasers on the front page; with headlines inside and on section fronts, and we do it in the news columns. We do it, in a way, every time we write, “Smith was not available for comment” after making one phone call to Smith’s office -– at midnight on a Sunday. We do it every time we write “many” when it was two. We do it every time we write “sources said” when it was one source.

It is unethical, and the long of it is, these indiscretions are killing us. They are –- no, they have –- undermined our credibility to the point that journalists are nearly as loathed as lawyers. And that’s taking a serious toll with the public and the courts.

If you doubt me, just take a look at the recent Pew surveys and the court decisions that have gone against us in the past few years. It’s been bad, and it’s getting worse. The public no longer sees us as friends; the courts no longer see us as serving a higher purpose.

My challenge to all of us is to make it stop. I challenge you to take journalism ethics into your own hands. I challenge each of us to become a force for ethical journalism in our own newsrooms.

In corporate America, we are far too inclined to do nothing about policy except wait for an edict from on high. That’s a top-down mentality. If the editors don’t send out a memo, it’s not our job. If the company lawyers take two years to vet an ethics policy, then we’ll just have to wait to be ethical. If the big bosses want to run sensational headlines, so be it.

That’s not acceptable.

Ethical behavior is something that doesn’t come from the top. In my opinion, it can’t. Ethics has to come from each of us. So bring it on.

Next time, write “how many” instead of “many.” Next time a piece of copy crosses your desk that says “Smith didn’t return phone calls,” ask just how many calls were made. And next time someone suggests a headline that’s just a little bit too good to be true, call them on it.

This is the only way we can begin to rebuild trust. Acting ethically is the only way to restore our credibility, and there is no more valuable or important asset than that.

The cartoonist Walt Kelly, author of a wonderful old strip called Pogo, penned the following words for the first Earth Day celebration in 1970: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I am afraid that is an all too apt description of media in the early 21st century.

We are the enemies of journalism every time we look the other way and let another half-truth, another sensational headline, another ethical lapse sneak through the door. Once they get past the door, we’re stuck with them.


David Carlson spent more than 20 years as a reporter, photographer, designer and top editor at newspapers before joining the University of Florida in 1993. He was an early developer of online newspapers and now is the Cox/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism and director of the Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville. You can contact him at carlson@spj.org

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