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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Good news, bad news

Reader-submitted complaint: Journalism ethics? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

That was really un-called-for. I demand that you apologise to me and all of my readers who are either current or former journalists.

Journalism ethics are real, although they're not like, say, medical ethics. They are a voluntary code and there are no standard consequences for reporters who violate them. There is no licensing body and, at least in theory, anyone can work as a reporter. However, a reporter who really screws up will get fired and won't work in journalism again.

I cannot point you to any definite set of rules, because different publications have different standards. My former employer has a pretty good set of guidelines, and that would be a good place to start.

I can provide a brief overview, though:

Journalism must be accurate.
This means challenging a person's false statements. It means presenting as much information as possible. It means checking facts and getting as many sources as possible. Really outrageous stuff should be double-sourced, and things that are easy to verify should always be verified. Information should not be presented in a misleading way. Corrections should be prominent and online versions of stories should be updated with the correct information.

Journalism must be objective. This can be tough. Journalists are people (yes, ha ha...) and people can get wrapped up in their work. It doesn't mean that they have no stake in the issue -- usually reporters will have SOME stake in their stories -- but that they can fairly evaluate the issue. Often, one of the following things will cause problems for a news organization's objectivity:

  • The reporter will be unable to accept the possibility that he or she has been duped.
  • The reporter is convinced that someone is hiding a big secret or is corrupt to the core, despite evidence to the contrary.
  • The reporter (or his friends or family) somehow gets involved in the story.
  • News breaks late in the day and there is no time to allow the subject of a story to respond to a nasty allegation.
  • There is not enough or no separation between news and editorial staff.
  • There is censorship of some kind -- perhaps there is pressure to avoid making an advertiser look bad.
  • A source has been paid for his or her information.
News organizations must be accountable to the public. They have an obligation to report the news and to bring matters of public interest to light. But they also have an obligation to acknowledge their own errors. Some have ombudsmen, but others do this through their senior editors. This can be tricky, because when staff screw up, the boss's first instinct is usually to back them up. This doesn't work in the news industry. The person at the top has to be willing to admit when he makes mistakes, account for the decisions he made, and promise to do a better job in the future. That's a bitter pill.

Journalism ethics can be complicated and it would take an entire blog to discuss them in any depth. There is no list of rules; you just have to learn the basic principles and apply them to situations as they arise. Sometimes this will be a matter of weighing principles that appear to be in opposition to each other: for example, there is no real consensus about how to deal with confidential sources who turn out to be lying or with government agencies that present compelling reasons a story should not be published.

Thanks for your complaint.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I just have to get in on this one. I won't go so far as to laugh at journalistic ethics, but you're sounding utopian. Do journalists mystically get less bounded by their own expectations and valuance of information than the rest of us?

Accuracy only makes sense if we know the truth, and can thus check it (a fact propagandists have known and abused for centuries), and while objectivity is a nice ideal, attaining it would assume a reporter is not interpreting the information they receive, which is false on its face.

Alison said...

Whenever I hear the words journalism and ethics used together I get haunting flashbacks of a certain bearded man's class and endless debates that usual ended with someone storming out of the room and someone else in tears. Thanks for bring back the painful memories :)

Megan said...

Ah, good times! Am I a horrible person for enjoying those classes? Or for wishing that more working journalists had taken them?

Alison said...

I actually enjoyed them too... but then again, I like arguing with people :)

gifted typist said...

I'm with you on many things you say about journos and the fourth estate, but the idea of journalistic objectivity seems quaint and nostalgic after the philosophical shakeup of deconstruction in the 90s.

Journalists' views, questions and ways of seeing a story are framed by their culture, background and personal experience. They can't help but be partial and positioned in certain ways.

You can see this when you look at the same story - say on Iraq - covered from different countries/networks - NBC, BBC, Al Jeezira, CBC for ex. Some of the facts might be the same, but you end up with different focuses, details and conclusions. Do we in Canada really think that we are objective/right while the others are all biased?

The idea that a complex issue can be neatly boiled down into two opposing sides is another example of journalism's lack of objectivity.

Of course everyone likes to think they are objective and therefore right. But this sort of claim can be dangerous.