A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

A classic case of good reporter, bad reporter

By Quill

Sometimes it seems that journalism ethics is like “Mr. Nice Guy,” who can never get a date.

We’ve all seen the pop-psychology stories – there was one just the other day in my hometown Denver Post – exploring the puzzle of why so many women seem to prefer the “dangerous” guys to the “nice” ones.

The same goes for journalists, regardless of gender. We’re much more captivated by our “dangerous” side than by our “nice” side.

Even when we collectively commend ethical behavior, it’s more likely to be for standing up to an avaricious employer or a litigious newsmaker than it is for refusing to go along with the media mob in doing something that stretches the ethical envelope.

We still prefer toughness to compassion, and assertiveness to accountability, despite what it says in our Code of Ethics.

Ethics, you may recall, has been defined in membership polls, in strategic planning exercises and by SPJ leadership as one of the Society’s two principal missions.

But when we boast about our achievements, we’re much more likely to point to our successes in living up to the other principal principle: freedom of information.

Prying open meetings and ensuring access to government records has more sex appeal than respecting sources or explaining ourselves to readers.

By the way, in pointing out that ethics and FOI are SPJ’s two main missions, I don’t mean to imply that our other missions aren’t vitally important, too. Diversity, professional development and student outreach are just as critical to the survival of journalism and SPJ.

But SPJ’s efforts in FOI and ethics lead the industry and distinguish it from other journalism organizations that aren’t quite so “big picture” oriented.

Even so, ethics has some catching up to do in order to be on the same plane as our widely and justifiably celebrated efforts in the area of freedom of information.

When the SPJ Code of Ethics was amended during the mid-’90s, it was expanded to reflect some of the more humanitarian notions that were creeping into journalism.

Not only would we “seek truth and report it” and “act independently” – the two mainstays of all of our previous codes – but we also would strive to “minimize harm” and “be accountable.”

Ethically, we went from being mostly dangerous, to also being somewhat nice. It was like the “good cop, bad cop” scenario. The good cop now would provide a little relief from the aggressive badgering of the bad cop.

That amended Code, adopted at the SPJ national convention in 1996, was written at a time journalists were struggling with the notion of “community” or “civic” journalism. Many newspaper managers were acknowledging public pressure to stop being so negative and to be more responsive to what readers said they wanted.

To many, including some of the nation’s leading newspapers, this movement smacks of pandering and implies rejection of objectivity. But it’s also the kind of journalism that is regularly practiced in smaller communities.

Small-town newspapers can’t help but be intimately connected with their communities – not just as communities, but as individuals with faces and personalities.

And it isn’t easy to be Mr. Dangerous when everybody in town knows who you are, where you live and how your kids behave in school.

To be sure, the SPJ Code has its dangerous element. Fully half of the Code – the “Seek Truth and Report It” principle – is based on the premise that “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”

It says such dangerous things as:

“Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.”

“Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

“Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.” A noble sentiment – and tough, too.

But most of the Code, let’s face it, falls on the Mr. Nice Guy, good cop side of things. Such as:

“Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”

“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”

“Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.”

“Show compassion. … Be sensitive. … Show good taste.”

And there are provisions that are both dangerous and nice:

“Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.”

“Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

So what are we to be, then? Naughty or nice? Detached or compassionate? Should we – speaking for the males in our audience – wipe those smiles off our faces, put away our Mr. Rogers cardigans and begin sporting tattoos, three-day stubbles and sullen expressions?

Not really. This conflict is more one of style than substance. It’s possible to be both nice and dangerous. The best approach is to be civil, respectful – and determined. It’s still true that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.