Although this Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) article is about journalists missing an opportunity to support fellow reporter CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta from President-elect Donald Trump’s berating, CJR Delacorte Fellow Pete Vernon writes, in part, that “Journalism is a competitive business…We all campaign for scoops, access, and sources, but we are, effectively, on the same side…”
While true to the extent that journalism is a competitive undertaking that sees its practitioners campaigning [competing] for “scoops, access, and sources” I doubt this puts all journalists on the same side.
Rather, I contend this competitiveness leads to breaks in ethical journalism or even breaks in moral judgement when looking for and presenting material for publication or broadcast. And these ethical breaks are not only applicable to how we go about obtaining and presenting stories but even to how we deal with material garnered by fellow journalists, ostensibly on the same side.
Notwithstanding plagiarism, which is both an ethical and moral dilemma facing the media in a now highly digital world, how often has a reporter, after doing all the leg work and compiling their initial ‘draft’ had their work taken over by a more senior reporter whose byline is then attached to the final piece, without even an acknowledgment of the junior’s work?
That is just one way many journalists, including their editors, breach their ethical requirements. This is just one avenue from which newcomers learn that ethics are at the whim of the practitioner.
Another area is where, as a copy editor, I have had to query unsourced quotes in a story only to discover the reporter invented them, a byproduct of their ‘reading between the lines’ to enhance the story. And this was not just from cadet or cub reporters.
These two examples aside, what the hell is going on with journalism today?
While accusations of unethical journalism abound throughout its history, it seems this modern era – this era we are now calling a post-truth era defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” – is more than ever becoming a time devoid of ethics.
An era in which lines are being drawn between competing media outlets and their journalists to delineate what they consider ethical or unethical journalism; ergo the ethics of BuzzFeed publishing unverified (but potentially verifiable) allegations in the Trump-Russia files, of which CJR Managing Editor, Vanessa M. Gezari contends, “The media’s full-throated condemnation of BuzzFeed is both self-righteous and self-serving.”
Yet, many of the arguments – for and against – tend to overlook that while such decisions should be guided by a strong ethical compass they are most often – if not always – made under considerations of tight, uncompromising deadlines. That said, if your only publishing outlet is online then such constraints should be less demanding, particularly when much of the media had known of the information therein for months, at least since last October, and did little if anything about it.
Was this inaction unethical when, considering journalism ethic codes across the board, one of the mainstays is to report and interpret news with scrupulous honesty through endeavoring to disclose all essential facts and not suppressing relevant, available facts or distorting those facts through wrong or improper emphasis?
Codes of Ethics abound within journalism. For example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Media Watch program lists no fewer than 13 ‘Codes of Practice (ethics)’ for Australian media on its website yet the show regularly calls out ethic breaches by the Australian media.
As a print journalist I never lied about my intentions or angle when seeking to secure a story. I would be upfront in my requests for information and interviews. And if the ‘angle’ changed I did my best to let my sources know that a change was in progress and how, if at all, that change might affect their contribution. And no matter what, sources were, at the minimum, double checked and verified And if the human subject of a story was about to be negatively portrayed by others, by sources, that subject would always be given the opportunity to comment on the content and the accusations destined for publication.
Even Donald Trump deserves that right, irrespective of what you, I or we may think of him as possibly unsuitable presidential material.
In 2011 Brazilian journalist and journalism ethicist Caio Túlio Costa outlined his concept of ‘provisional morality’ in journalism. Speaking with Natalia Mazotte for the University of Texas at Austin’s Journalism in the Americas he said:
“The idea behind this concept is showing consumers of journalistic information that, depending on the situation and on the facts, there are different ways to approach, analyze, divulge, and evaluate news items. These variations reflect, from an ethical point of view, what could be more or less principled procedures for publishing news. Journalists could, using “public interest” as a justification, for example, disguise themselves and lie in order to gather information. They may not think that it is right to lie during their daily lives, but they could believe it is acceptable in that moment in order to obtain a specific fact. This is what I call provisional morality.”
He also said that “definitely,” not everything can be justified in serving the public interest and that provisional morality “is not intended to define how journalism should be, but to show how it is being practiced.
Today it seems this provisional morality is in full swing with journalists realigning their moral compasses to accommodate a constant shifting of both individual and collective journalistic ethics; a shift that would otherwise be at odds with their non-journalism moral and ethical lives (notwithstanding that like an off-duty police officer never stops being a police officer, a journalist never stops being a journalist).
From serious breaches filtering from the top of the editorial pyramid, such as the British phone-hacking scandals that led to the Leveson inquiry, to mid-level breaches like failing to declare a pecuniary interest in a company about which you are reporting on to more minor breaches like failing to declare a story is based on sponsored junkets for example, journalists today, perhaps more than ever, need to ensure their ethical standards are not being governed by some form of hip-pocket integrity.
One of the ‘calls to action from the Ethical Journalism Network’s recently released report Ethics in the News is “[t]o encourage attachment to ethical values in the management and governance of journalism.”
Yet, while encouraging this call for “attachment” is laudable, should not those entering the profession along with those already in it, have an already attached approach to ethics well beyond that of non-journalism practitioners? And if not, is it teachable?
To some degree I believe it is teachable, but only in the sense of instilling in future (and current) journalists correct notions of differences between right and wrong, with nothing in between. There cannot be room for any shade of grey.
Our approach to practicing ethics comes from within but in this world of diminishing resources, ie., shrinking newsrooms with the remaining few being required to submit across numerous platforms in a publish first correct later climate, those journalists – old and new – being forced into a world where anyone with an IPhone or Smartphone is a potential journalist are perhaps even less likely to consider ethical approaches when looking for that scoop to get them back in the game, instead of writing ‘content’ as an underpaid or even unpaid user-generated provider.
We all know exactly when and why we choose to ignore the ethics expected of us; be it to gain that scoop, gain access, or get to a source.
I am not a religious person, never have been and doubtful I ever will be, but if we take the golden biblical rule as a starting point, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” as the basis of our own personal and professional ethics, then perhaps journalism and its modern day practitioners will lessen the constant blow to our integrity as purveyors of fact and watchdogs of our respective communities.
The choices we make as journalists can and do affect the choices others make, both in dealing with us and in defending us.