Journalists policing their ethics

Good Journalists police their own ethics

By Allan Roy Andrews

Just before Christmas of the year I broke into journalism covering the courts and government offices of a county in Central Indiana, the county treasurer, an affable and very electable politician (the only Democrat to be re-elected in my rookie year of covering politics), handed me a small gift-wrapped package as I made my beat rounds.

Without realizing it, I’d been bought.

At least that’s what I concluded after my opened gift–a pen-and-pencil set engraved with the treasurer’s name along with a message of “Season’s Greetings”–still sitting in its Christmas wrapping on my desk spurred questions and discussion among my newsroom colleagues.  My news editor, my city editor, and eventually my managing editor entered into the sporadic but persistent discussions with me and one or two other reporters on the ethics of accepting gifts from those we were covering and potentially criticizing.

My bosses in that tiny newsroom were excellent teachers.  At least two of them were graduates of fine journalism programs at Northwestern U. and the U. of Indiana.  But they’d also been on the beat and faced the same ethical test I had failed.  They played down, of course, the significance of the “bribe” I’d brought back to show around the newsroom, but their gentle and persuasive discussions implanted an attitude and conviction that became a guide for my professional life in newspapers.

With perhaps the exception of allowing some politicians to give me rides around the city during campaigns (some of my best interviews were had while riding to or from airports), I practiced the vow I took that evening as a rookie.  For the length of my career as a reporter and editor, I never accepted even a token gift from anyone who was a possible subject of my reporting and writing.  It just made perfect sense to me that a journalist must be, as the Hoosiers I learned from might have put it, “beholden to no one.”

In this era of civic journalism, entertainment journalism, highlighting infotainment and blustering TV commentators, and with the praised biases of “talk show” hosts and ranting bloggers, we need reminders of the ethical principles upon which modern American journalism has been built.

When I hear so often in our political discourse of “liberal media” or “right-wing media” being castigated by citizens who apparently have never been encouraged toward critical thinking, I want to interrupt them and say, “That’s not how most of us play the game.”  Instead of hating the media, citizens must learn to respect journalism; the converse, of course, is that journalists must earn that respect by adhering to high ethical standards.

To put this in perspective, I invite you to revisit with me a four-year-old booklet that probably only a few hundred people have ever  read.  It underscores the principles that I learned from foolishly accepting a kindly politician’s Christmas gift.  The booklet—47 pages plus an index—is called Ethical Journalism, an internal publication of The New York Times. The 2004 tract is subtitled, “A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments.”

The Times’ proscriptions are unlike other journalistic codes of ethics that arose in the 1990s following a wave of incidents in which well-known journalists lied about their reports and sources.  Those ethics codes, in the words of Marianne Jennings, an ethics professor at Arizona State University, “err by focusing less on journalists’ conduct than on the ‘public’s right to know.’  In other words, they say a lot about the rights and very little about the press’ responsibilities.”

The Times’ handbook, in contrast, goes right to the details.

For example, in a section that spoke to my sin of taking a gift called “Accepting Hospitality from Sources,” the handbook reads:

“A simple buffet of muffins and coffee at a news conference . . . is harmless but a staff member should not attend a breakfast or lunch held periodically for the press by a ‘newsmaker’ unless the Times pays for the staff member’s meals.”

(In my opinion, incidentally, this constraint also applies to such innocuous events as a Presidential Prayer Breakfast.)  
The handbook goes on to list complimentary tickets to artistic and athletic performances as being out of bounds for a serious, ethical journalist.

Here is another proscription that might surprise the devotees of televised news forums:

“No staff member who takes part in a broadcast, Webcast, public forum or panel discussion may write or edit news articles about that event.”

This may bring up short those who specialize in interviewing colleagues in front of the camera and get little more than interpretive pap or those who write reports about what politicians and other officials say while engaging in televised and sponsored discussions.

Citizens who are prone to castigating the media need to understand more clearly the efforts professional journalists impose upon themselves and their colleagues in order to avoid biased delivery of the news.  Many citizens are simply too cavalier in their dismissal of the press.  I think a browsing of the Times handbook on ethics could do much to educate the public and help them hold journalism to its stated ethical stance.

New York Times staff members are ethically prohibited from participating in contests or competitions sponsored by groups that “have a direct interest in the tenor of Times coverage.”

The handbook makes specific reference to some popular competitions.  Times staffers are advised not to take part in competitions that ask them to vote on the outcome.  Listed as prohibited are voting for winners of the Tony Awards, the Heisman Trophy and other awards picked by members of the press such as most valuable player, rookie-of-the-year awards and entrance into various halls of fame.

When it comes to politics, the handbook states flatly:  “Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics.”  Wearing campaign buttons or insignia is prohibited, as is the display of bumper stickers or lawn signs endorsing a particular candidate.  Times staff members are flatly barred from seeking public office anywhere.

There is a trove of educating tidbits in this handbook about how the press expects its members to operate.  What I have highlighted is just a taste of the handbook’s riches.  The document is posted on the New York Times company Web site.

Recently, with the rise of blogs and other freelance material appearing in print media, the Times has initiated a program of having freelancers sign a statement that they have read and are familiar with the Times’ ethical provisions as spelled out in the handbook.

I think it a fine idea for every blogger to peruse this important document.

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