Ethics in Journalism

The value of personal and professional ethics is touted as being of the greatest importance in news journalism. Newspapers post their own clearly-defined “code of ethics” in plain view of all employees, and it is also available to the publication’s readers. As cultural values change, do we also find that the values of our news media change?

The Society of Professional Journalists is an organization that created the defining code of ethics for journalism. This code is used in countless news organizations and in journalism schools.

The Preamble to the code says, “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.”

Ethics codes are put in place to set a journalist on a higher plane than the other forms of media. With the line between news and entertainment blurring to an increasing degree it has become difficult for consumers to tell the difference between ethical news and unethical news.

A hot button topic that journalists have agonized over for years has been whether or not to disclose the names of crime victims, specifically the names of victims of sex crimes which are particularly embarrassing to the victim and the victim’s family.

The SPJ code of ethics states, “Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.” It is easy to notice that the code does not clearly say, “No.” Most newspapers have decided to play it safe and will in no case disclose the names of victims. Other publications have not been so definite about their stance. The Globe published both the name and photo of the accuser in the Kobe Bryant rape case. This is a very high profile case, but does it warrant the release of the accuser’s identity?

In the same section of the SPJ ethics code that warns to “be cautious”, it also states, “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage,” “recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention,” and “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

The Globe is a well known tabloid and tabloids are notorious for “pandering to lurid curiosity” in order to sell newspapers. But the increase of media outlets turning a blind-eye to ethics has been noticeable as we have become a celebrity conscious culture.

Even well respected media outlets have stumbled in their ethics and consumers are left wondering who to trust.

The New York Times was recently involved in a scandal with an employee who had plagiarized and fabricated information in his articles. The story of Jayson Blair is one that has tarnished the image of the New York Times, which has been the most popular and respected publications in America.

Blair had copied portions from a Texas newspaper’s story about Juanita Anguiano, a mother of a soldier who died in Iraq. Macarena Hernandez was the writer of the original story and later recounted in the Washington Post how he felt upon learning of Blair’s plagiarism.

“When I read Blair’s story on the morning of April 26, it seemed possible, barely, that Blair too had visited Anguiano, a south Texas mother whose son Edward was the last American Soldier missing in action in Iraq. I concluded that Blair had stolen my work. And to make matters worse, he’d twisted Anguiano’s story, dishonoring her pain at one of the worst times in her life,” said Hernandez.

Blair never actually went to Texas. His resignation from the Times came after he was unable to provide receipts for the Texas trip. (Hernandez)

Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz wrote that Blair was also found to be fabricating interviews with the likes of Kent State University’s Athletic Director Pete Mahoney, Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, and even misquoted former President Bill Clinton.

Blair is guilty of failing to follow the four main points of the SPJ code of ethics, which are to “Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.”

In a public statement New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines said, “The Times apologizes to its reader’s for a grave breach of its journalistic standards. We will also apologize to the family of the soldierâÂ?¦for heightening their pain in a time of mourning.” (Kurtz)

The Jayson Blair fiasco escalated has escalated into a debate on affirmative action. Blair has come out swinging against the Times stating that his resignation and the aftermath has made him to look like “the bumbling affirmative action hire”, but also included, “They’re all so smart, but I was sitting right under their nose fooling them. If they’re all so brilliant and I’m such an affirmative action hire, how come they didn’t catch me?” (Kurtz)

Competing newspapers have been covering the Times scandal feverishly. Credibility and ethical reporting are essential to a newspaper who wants its readers to come to it for the news. Now that the Times have revealed a chip in their armor they are suspect to the community not believing future articles.

Detroit Free Press writer Rochelle Riley responded to the Blair situation saying, “I am not Jayson Blair. And what Jayson Blair did-plagiarize stories, make up quotes-doesn’t happen every day, no matter what the intellectual scribes claim, those who want to paint this picture with a brush large enough to taint every newspaper and every black journalist.”

It is important to the consumer to be discerning and knowledgeable to what news outlets are credible and ethical. News media plays a huge part in the development of our culture, it is so important to support improved ethics and credible journalists.

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