Twenty-five years ago, I went into the work world without ethical decision-making skills. As a young journalist, I was too embarrassed to ask editors about matters of ethics; I thought they would think I was incompetent. I wasn’t sure who to ask for advice. Over time, however, I learned no simple or clear-cut answers to ethical dilemmas usually exist, and a journalist can’t always automatically know what to do. Reflection and reasoning are in order. News organizations have codes of ethics, and these guidelines are helpful to a point. But sometimes journalists need to reason and reflect beyond codes; discussion is necessary. They need to hear what others have to say. Hopefully, most journalists have co-workers or supervisors with whom ethical issues can be discussed – and they hopefully have the courage to do so. But for those who feel as if they are working in isolation or for those who seek alternative opinions or solutions, help is available. HOT LINES
One of the most common sources of ethical advice is the phone hot line. For a journalist facing an ethical problem on deadline, hot lines can provide quick feedback or ideas. Jay Black, University of South Florida professor and co-editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, created the SPJ Ethics Hot line while serving as chair of SPJ’s national Ethics Committee in the mid-1990s. He stresses that those who answer hot line questions do “no moralizing.” Instead, advice oftentimes is given via the Society’s Code of Ethics and its guiding principles. Black points out, however, that decision-making sometimes must be discussed outside of the guidelines of the Code. “Ethics committee members occasionally get involved, especially if they have a particular expertise,” said Fred Brown, who now serves as the chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee. For instance, Ethics Committee member Peter Sussman has knowledge on prison access issues, and Brown said he usually refers those questions to Sussman. Another hot line undertaking is the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a joint effort between the Society of Professional Journalists’ Chicago Headline Club and the Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics. The AdviceLine is part of a three-phase program that began operating in January. “Making ethics decisions in isolation is very difficult,” said Casey Bukro, the Headline Club’s ethics chairman and overnight editor at the Chicago Tribune. “Talking it over with somebody who is trained in ethics makes it easier.” Calls to the AdviceLine are answered by Loyola University Chicago affiliates who are trained in ethics, including ethics professors, Bukro said. “The Loyola person on call checks for messages and, depending on the complexity of the issue, will call back with an answer or call back to discuss it further,” he said. Callers are sometimes helped immediately; the goal of the AdviceLine, however, is to respond to callers in 24 hours or less. Callers are offered confidentiality, Bukro said. The AdviceLine is the first phase of the Loyola ethics center and the Headline Club alliance. The second phase is to offer ethics training courses for journalists, and the third phase includes scheduling forums on Chicago-area media ethics issues. At Ohio University in Athens, the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics offers online help with ethical dilemmas via its Ethics Forum. Arthur Zucker, director of the institute and an associate professor of philosophy, created the institute as a public service in 1999. Members of the institute’s “E-Team” answer questions. The institute welcomes inquiries about business, medical, or journalism ethics. Zucker said, however, that the majority of the questions answered by the E-Team – made up of ethics scholars – are journalistic in nature. The institute usually responds to questions within a week. “It varies with the complexity of the question and what we are doing at the time,” Zucker said. “Some questions take research as well as thought.” Zucker notes that the E-Team offers only guidance, not legal advice, and the site offers anonymity. In addition to these sources, journalists can often look to their own employers for ethics advice. News companies such as the E.W. Scripps Company and Gannett have aggressive ethics programs in place. For instance, Scripps provides an ethics Helpline for its employees. Calls are answered by the Ethical Program Director Denise Kuprionis, and confidentiality is maintained. Journalists should check to see what kind of assistance their employers offer. WATCH AND LEARN
Sometimes it helps to learn from the decisions of those who have gone before us. For journalists who want to know how other journalists tackle tough calls, there are several Web sites that have compiled ethical journalism case studies. Indiana University’s associate professor Dave Boeyink created the “Journalism Ethics Cases Online” site. More than 175 actual cases are listed in 13 topic areas such as “Workplace Issues,” “Handling Sources,” and “Naming Newsmakers.” Cases come from the now defunct newsletter FineLine, created by Barry Bingham Jr. Each case explains a dilemma and explains how the journalist approached the problem. Ethics columns by Deni Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana, are available on the site, as well. A project of the Committee of Concerned Journalists’ Project for Excellence in Journalism is a Web site of case studies, which recently became available online. Although the site was created for journalism professors and their students, professional journalists may find the cases instructional and valuable for discussion in their newsrooms. ORGANIZATIONAL HELP
Besides the specific examples listed above, there are several organizations that offer ethical support for journalists. The Poynter Institute, a school for professional journalists and journalism educators in St. Petersburg, Fla., offers several kinds of assistance. The Institute’s Web site offers dozens of tip sheets and guidelines for those grappling with dilemmas – ranging from using hidden cameras to identifying juveniles. Journalists who need assistance with ethical issues and dilemmas also can call the Institute, said Bob Steele, Poynter’s ethics group leader and senior faculty member. Those who need help should call Poynter’s main telephone number and ask for any of the faculty members who have expertise in ethical decision-making: Steele, Keith Woods, Aly Colon, Kenny Irby or Al Tompkins. Poynter also has a toll-free number that journalists can call “day or night,” according to its Web site. E-mailing any of the ethics group members also is an option. Poynter promotes professional excellence and has offered weeklong ethics seminars for several years. For electronic journalists, the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, affiliated with RTNDA, has created an ethics mission that includes the Journalism Ethics and Integrity Project and the News Leadership Project. Ethics workshops and seminars for journalists are part of the project, as are videotapes and publications of case studies. Its Web site offers several tip sheets with basic guidelines on topics such as digital manipulation and suicide or crisis coverage. Kathleen Graham, ethics and leadership project director, said journalists are welcome to either e-mail or call with questions. “This is a priority for us,” Graham said. Journalists do not have to be a member of RTNDA to call the office. Questions are oftentimes forwarded to Barbara Cochran, RTNDA president. Cochran stressed the importance of offering help. She said many recent callers have queried her about where to draw the line between news and sales. “Ethical questions are not always a matter of right and wrong. There are sometimes shades of gray,” Cochran said. “There is a rising concern about the loss of public trust. It’s very important for us to take this very seriously.”
Lee Anne Peck is a Ph.D. candidate in Ohio University’s journalism ethics program and an assistant professor of international communications at Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.