Joe Kollin, a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, kindled quite a discussion among ethics committee members recently when he suggested that, because people are ignoring the ethics code, it’s “useless” and should be scrapped.
“If the big media companies don’t care about ethics, how can those of us who work for them? It’s a waste of the society’s precious resources to support a code,” Kollin wrote in an e-mail to Gary Hill, the ethics chair, who forwarded Kollin’s complaint to other committee members.
Not surprisingly, committee members vigorously disagreed with the idea that the code should be abandoned. Does society abandon the Ten Commandments because people continually ignore them? Hey, if SPJ doesn’t care about ethics, who will?
Kollin clearly is deeply concerned about what happened at his newspaper, which is part of the large and widely respected Tribune company. Here’s a summary, provided mostly by Kollin and abbreviated somewhat:
Last March, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel “violated the conflict-of-interest section of the code as well as plain old common sense,” Kollin wrote. “A reporter being prosecuted by a local state attorney on a criminal charge wrote an investigative story highly critical of, yes, that very same elected state attorney.”
The story, about ineptly excessive prosecution of murder cases, came the day after a competitor’s story of the same charges. The charges were made by that famous defense attorney, Barry Scheck. The Sun-Sentinel’s story, though, was based largely on the newspaper’s own investigation.
As a sometimes participant in this sort of thing, it looked to me like a “drat!” story – or even a stronger expletive. The editors, puffing out their lips and stomping around the newsroom, say something like: “Here we’d been working on this thing for who knows how long, and along comes Barry Scheck with a big media blowout and our competition gets it first. So we’ll follow and advance the story with what we’ve been working on.”
There were problems, though – serious problems. A week later, the Sun-Sentinel printed a front-page correction consisting of a rebuttal by the pilloried prosecutor and a list of eight errors and omissions in the article.
“The correction was so unusual that [American Journalism Review], E&P Online, Quill and others reported it, telling how the Sun-Sentinel put the correction in the newspaper’s lead spot out of a fervent desire to acknowledge its mistakes and make things right with the world,” Kollin wrote.
It didn’t make things right, Kollin contends, because it didn’t say a word about the conflict of interest of one of the two reporters on the story. Only a local alternative paper mentioned the connection.
Here’s the conflict: The lead reporter had been prosecuted on a sexual assault charge by the same prosecutor’s office. It was a rather shaky case – sort of like the murder cases being questioned – involving a drunken romp in the wrong bed. Kollin tried getting media critics around the country to weigh in on the conflict and the paper’s failure to acknowledge it, but “judging by their lack of response, the media critics and reviewers also found nothing wrong with the Sun-Sentinel’s breach of faith.”
Kollin concludes: “So, there you have it. The newspaper I work for, the company that owns it and nationally known media experts all say nothing was wrong. If they don’t care, why should we? How can we? How can SPJ?”
The responses from ethics committee members Jerry Dunklee and Peter Sussmann were similar and, I suspect, speak for a great many other members. Essentially, they said that one company’s failure to acknowledge an ethical problem, and the failure of other responsible media critics to get sufficiently excited about it, reinforces the need for ethical guidelines and guidance. It does not diminish that need.
Sussmann wrote: “The greatest value of an ethics code is to put forth generally accepted standards by which errant behavior can be evaluated by the company and individuals involved as well as by the profession and the public. Practically, it also gives journalists with ethical beefs against their own employers something that they can point to in addressing and educating management.
“But … no code of ethics, no ethical violation.” If the company deserves to be criticized, Sussmann concludes, “Let’s hold their feet to the fire, if it’s called for, not eliminate all fire.”
“The code is not the problem,” said Dunklee. “The problem is owners and publishers who are often ill-informed about the history and value of journalism in a democratic society. Many of them, and their boards of directors, see news as just another product, like soda pop.”
I would add one more observation: There’s a lot more to ethical behavior than avoiding conflicts of interest. The criminal complaint against the reporter, from what I read in the materials Kollin provided, was a shaky one. It stemmed from a drunken evening and the reporter’s crashing in the same bed already occupied by a friend’s girlfriend.
From that perspective, it may not have been worth a mention. And it would suggest that the reporter had a score to even, and editors were not going to stifle the story on that basis. But that element should have been mentioned, at least, and explained.
It suggests a deeper credibility problem: Even when we, as journalists, go to extremes to make amends, such as a front-page mea culpa, we may still hold back and not tell the whole story. It’s the sort of thing we would decry in a public official.
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, retired in January as political editor of The Denver Post. He is organizing a project to study media and government ethics.