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Where is Ethical Journalism Headed Today?

 article about Where is Ethical Journalism Headed Today?
For the many of us who've been talking all these years about the importance of solid ethical practices in journalism, the road has been long and not without obstacles.

And as I read the sentence I just wrote, it strikes me that within it lies perhaps the fundamental problem with ethical teachings. It shouldn't say many of us, but rather all of us. Because, if there is one thing Ive learned in my travels and talks on this subject, its that every journalist must see it as an obligation to understand, discuss, practice and promote ethics. We must also condemn unethical behavior.

When I started my work on the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists in 1987, I found that few working journalists cared enough about the moral construction of our profession to engage in healthy discussions. In fact, many times my trips to newsrooms were met with out-and-out resistance.

I often heard they were insulted when someone came and stood before them to discuss their moral makeup. Understand that I did not, and do not to this day, allege to have magical answers. Anyone looking for me to give them a directive or declare an "ethical absolute" is going to be in for a letdown. I've always seen my role as one of facilitating frank and healthy discussions on ethics.

So, it seemed to me in those early days that many people saw me as the snake oil salesman who road into town, peddling wares they were not willing to buy. Each time they wanted a promise that they would be better off for partaking in my magical, ethical elixir.

I dont need to talk about ethics, Im a good, moral person, I sometimes hear. Others said, My parents raised me to understand the difference between right and wrong and I dont need anyone challenging my beliefs. Some suggested that years of Sunday school and church prepared me for the ethical decisions I have to make in life. In response to such comments about parents raising them properly, Id often say, I had parents like that. Im glad I did.

But was there ever a time after your dad loaded you into the back of the station wagon for that summer trip to grandmas house when he announced there would be a discussion about the use of anonymous sources?

At the dinner table, did mom ever proclaim, Children, tonight Id like for us to talk about the publics right to know versus a persons right to privacy? Did the TV go off just when Gunsmoke/Cosby (pick a generation) was set to start and your parents suggested instead that an honest discussion on conflicts on interest take place?

My point is, despite the best in moral upbringing, nothing as children adequately prepared us for the situations we face as journalists. While Sunday school lessons and lectures from parents are helpful in growing up, one cannot always easily translate that into a foundation for decisions we face in newsrooms. As we learn in adult life, ethics are rarely black and white. As children we wanted directives and assurances that we were right or wrong. Ethics are often varying shades of gray.

The second part of that equation is this: When we begin to engage in healthy ethical discussions, it becomes quickly apparent that we use ethics in virtually every decision we make in the newsroom. That surprises many.

Take the example of fact seeking for a simple story. Whom do we call? Do we rely on those we are most comfortable with? Avoid people who may wage conflict? Why do we choose to call three people out of a potential list of 12 sources? How do we interact with them? Where do we play their comments in the story? Do we use their comments at all?

To be sure, if journalists had to play such questions in their heads every time they wrote a story, they would go mad. But, taking the time to think about how it is we interact with people, how we use them for information and the ethics we employ is a good exercise. Reporters will steer clear of certain sources because they dont like them, despite the fact they may have the most useful information. Their decision on how to handle a source can ultimately affect the outcome of their reporting and the information given to the public. So, is it ethical to treat one source better than another?

Lastly, in order to facilitate good ethical decision making it's important to recognize that knee-jerk reactions must give way to sound, thoughtful discussions in which many voices and views are welcome. Only then can good, meaningful decisions be reached that reflect the feelings of the newspaper and be defended to the public. Resist allowing one person, such as an editor, be the ultimate ethicist in the newsroom. It needs to be a collective effort. Rember how I started this column. It's the responsibility of every journalist to have a hand in ethics.

(Kevin Z. Smith is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee and served as chairman of the committee from 1994-96. He is a contributor to two ethics books and has taught and lectured on ethics at a number of college campuses.)



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