After my daily journalism days ended, I spent several years educating professional journalists about issues they cover in economics, science, the environment, foreign affairs and other fields. One of our key areas at the nonprofit Foundation For American Communications (FACS) was ethics. That resulted in Journalism Ethics: Why Change? a book edited by me and my assistant Dale Shaps that is still read by reporters, editors, producers and others in journalism who know how difficult it is, day in and day out, to be balanced, accurate and fair.
Over several years, we did a series of educational conferences on ethics for journalists. The programs attracted some of the leading figures in American news organizations as students, teachers, speakers and panelists. A few of them were Richard Harwood of The Washington Post; former National News Council President Norman Isaacs; Jeff Greefield, then of ABC News; William Henry III of TIME: Bud Benjamin of CBS News: and David Lawrence, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Jesse Mann, an ethicist and philosophy professor at Georgetown University, often led the participants through thinking about moral reasoning and newsgathering. At one of our sessions, Dave Lawrence, when he was publisher of The Detroit Free Press, confessed that he hadn’t fully connected the obligation to be accurate with ethics until he was the subject of a front page profile in a national newspaper. Lawrence said that the reporter made mistakes of fact that got past the copy desk and the editors. By being on the receiving end of the news process, he said, he acquired a greater understanding of why so many readers, listeners and viewers question the reliability of what they read, see and hear in the news.
All of that came to mind when I read DevraDoWrite‘s latest installment. It had to do with her hometown newspaper’s short profile of her husband, John Levy. Devra had a David Lawrence experience. Here’s some of what she wrote:
What could have been a lovely feature story in Friday’s Pasadena Star News was, sadly, full of factual errors, and worse, it was woefully short on substance. Errors included my age — I am 50 years old, 44 years younger than John, not 55 years younger than John which would make me 39 (and no, I don’t wish it were so); and we won’t even mention that there is no jazz musician I know of named Jim Hail. Okay those are two errors that are personal to me and I’m feeling snarky, but there are many other errors and a few misquotes as well. Whether due to shoddy/sloppy journalism practices or lack of experience I can’t say for a fact, but I do have an opinion.
Even though the reporter did request (and receive) a free copy of Men, Women and Girl Singers, John’s life story written entirely by yours truly (as John himself told her), I guess she didn’t have time to read it or any of the materials on the web site. However, she did interview John for two hours, consulted twice at length with his publicist, even called me with questions, and there is so much she could have written about.
To read all of Devra’s piece, go here.
It is almost instinctual among news consumers to conclude that when errors are made in print, radio and television news, they stem from political or ideological bias. I have found in working for decades in all three media—and now in this strange new digital one—that a large majority of working journalists want to get it right and want to be fair. (The question of ethical instincts among bloggers, most of whom are not journalists, is a subject for another occasion. Maybe, someday.) An overwhelming fact of life in the daily journalism business is that in a tighter, faster, news cycle with newsroom budgets being slashed by corporate ownerships that no longer regard news as a responsibility and a privilege but as a budgetary burden, with fewer reporters and editors cranking out more news, there will be more mistakes. That excuses nothing. The professional obligation to be informed, fair and accurate is a constant.
In the preface to Journalism Ethics: Why Change? I wrote:
Consciously or not, journalists practice ethics every day of their working lives. How much time to devote to a story, whether to include a name, whether to disclose a source, what to show on the screen: these are value judgments and involve ethical decisions as surely as massive arguments over fairness, balance and maintenance of the watchdog function of the press made possible by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
To many journalists, talking about matters of fairness and ethics is akin to inviting censorshop. But unless they make conscious efforts to view those decisions in an ethical framework, journalists will not fully understand their professional obligations and opportunities.
Twenty years later, I would add that the new owners of news organizations, many of them from industries with no connection to journalism traditions, must somehow come to understand that their new corporate assets carry an obligation to more than their stockholders. They have become gatekeepers of the free flow of information upon which the democracy depends. We will all be affected by how—and whether—they accommodate the pressures of the market to that responsbility.