Speaking of Ethics

Thinking back to my time at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, some of my strongest memories are of the discussions and lectures on journalism ethics. To be honest, at the time I thought it was a lot of hand-wringing. After 15 years in the trenches maybe I have more to wring my hands about. Or maybe the topic is inherently fuzzy. Let me start by defining terms.

The Free Dictionary offers a six-layered definiton that embraces everything from such high-minded concepts as the Fourth Estate to “material of current interest or wide popular appeal” — which I guess includes the fact that Paris Hilton was banned from one A-list Oscar party.

The Free Dictionary pins down ethics in very few words, calling it “principles of right conduct” that can be applied to govern “the conduct of a person or the members of a profession.”

But put “journalism” and “ethics” together and suddenly more words are needed to create this governing code.

The Society of Professional Journalists publishes a long page of do’s and don’ts that fall into three broad categories: to be fair and truthful in gathering news; to use the power of the press with compassion; and to be publicly accountable.

But the SPJ document is a marvel of brevity compared to the revised ethics policy released by the New York Times in 2003, which one journalism authority called “well-written and logically organized (d)espite its length (50+ pages).” An article in Editor & Publisher noted that it tightened rules on everything from stock ownership to wearing campaign buttons.

Not long after the new and improved policy was published the Times was mortified to learn that one of it rising stars, Jayson Blair, had plagiarized entire stories. More recently the Times, arguably the nation’s greatest newspaper and one on which it would be an honor to serve, was embroiled in a more complex and serious affair involving reporter Judith Miller and matters of war and WMDs.

Were there pages missing from the policy, or were simple norms disregarded? I’ll think outloud some more about this tomorrow.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media