One of my respected colleagues has long declined to join SPJ because the Society has a Code of Ethics, and he doesn’t like the idea of anyone telling journalists how to behave – even fellow journalists. It’s an absolutist free-press stand, and, while I don’t agree with it, I understand it.
Since my friend has had the same high-profile job for more than 17 years, I presume he doesn’t mind – or at least puts up with – journalists’ employers telling them what to do. But the fact that we have employers, and that journalism is a business, is an underlying reason we have an ethics code.
The Code exists in part to restrain our competitive urges, which are exacerbated by the profit motive – a motive that has had more impact in newsrooms as more and more of us work for publicly held corporations trying to maintain their earnings and stock prices in an increasingly fragmented media environment.
The pressures are intense. More and more news executives are talking like Michael Cooke, the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, who said last year when asked for his EDITORIAL mission statement:
“Some people think that we produce newspapers, and we don’t. We produce readers. And our mission statement is to produce readers so that we can deliver readers to the right advertisers so they’ll give us money and pay my mortgage. And that’s what it’s about for me. I don’t have a mission statement that The New York Times might like. Produce readers, give them to advertisers, advertisers give us money. I pay my mortgage and send my kids to school.”
That sounds more like a stockholders’ mission statement than an editor’s mission statement. Cooke went on to say that the news-department change that pleased him most was a new media-and-advertising beat, which appeals to “the people who place advertisements, and those are the people in the big advertising agencies around town.”
I give Mr. Cooke points only for his candor. I take public issue with his attitude because SPJ exists in part to remind journalists, their employers and the public that regardless of its commercial circumstances, journalism has a special mission; that it is more than a job, it is a calling; that it is more than a business, it is a form of public service that has some special obligations to the public and to itself.
We have special obligations because we have a special license – the First Amendment. In return for the freedom the American people have granted us, they deserve a certain measure of professional responsibility and accountability. That’s why we have an ethics code that says journalists should “Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently (and) be accountable.”
Each of the Code’s tenets has an opening statement. Under “Act Independently,” the Code says: “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”
That is the part of our code that comes closest to the biggest issue in journalism today – the growing influence of market forces in our newsrooms. Pressure for profit may be greater than at any time in truly modern journalism (which can be dated from the advent of real television news departments and the demise of newspaper competition in most metropolitan areas, in the 1960s).
While our code says nothing about profits, journalistic ethics go deeper than what happens in the newsroom. Those who profit from the First Amendment have an obligation not to abuse it.
Profit is not a dirty word. It is needed for virtually all of us to do our work. I learned that the hard way in my first “permanent” job in journalism, running a weekly newspaper almost 30 years ago, when I co-signed a loan to keep the paper afloat but then had to close it down.
But there is a balance between good profits and good journalism, and I fear that the pendulum has swung too far toward the former.
Jay T. Harris signaled that when he quit as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News last year rather than boost profits, which he said would damage the paper’s journalism. Harris suggested that journalists should spotlight their own industry and its practices, and that the tension between profits and newspapering should be explored, with “moral, social and business dimensions” given equal priority. I agree.
Harris’ bosses disputed his view about the effect of increased profits on his newsroom. Individual news organizations must decide their own profit goals, while individual journalists must decide what ethical principles they will follow. Jay Harris’ decision was, at bottom, an ethical decision.
It was also a rare decision, because it was an ethical decision that had an impact at the corporate level. Most journalists’ ethical decisions have little impact at that level, except when they take a collective stand for principle.
That’s part of what SPJ is about. We take collective stands in our Code of Ethics, the work of our Ethics Committee and our local chapters, and special issues of Quill like this one.
Please join us in our work, which preserves our calling.
Al Cross is president of SPJ and a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.
Tagged under: Ethics