The Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, as you know, thought it would be a good idea to designate the last week in April as “National Ethics in Journalism Week.” We had no idea what would happen.
We thought we’d call attention to the need for journalists to behave responsibly and ethically in their pursuit of the truth.
We had no idea that journalists themselves would be calling attention to that need – and in the worst possible ways.
Jayson Blair, a reporter for The New York Times, resigned under pressure May 1 – during ethics week – because he had been caught copying major parts of a story from the San Antonio Express-News.
This wasn’t just a journalism story. It became a Leno/Letterman routine. By now, everyone who wasn’t in a coma or a cave knows what happened.
Blair had written dozens of stories for The Times that were spun largely out of his imagination and other reporters’ work. The Times ran four pages of explanation and apology for the fraud.
The staff was in turmoil. Finally, Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd resigned a month after the problem came to light.
The race angle also was raised, along with the suspicion that Blair’s sins were forgiven because he is African-American. The Times has 375 reporters, and a large majority of them are white. Like all newspapers, it is struggling to achieve racial and ethnic diversity in its newsroom.
So not only does this episode hurt ethics in journalism, but it’s also a setback for diversity.
SPJ President Robert Leger took issue with media critics who linked affirmative action with the problems at The Times.
“Jayson Blair was simply a wreck waiting to happen, regardless of his color,” Leger said in a statement issued shortly after Blair’s problems – personal as well as professional – came to light.
The Times’ four-page report said, “The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”
“It’s a huge black eye,” said Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., chairman and Times publisher. “It’s an abrogation of the trust between the newspaper and its readers.”
It was worse than that.
While journalists flagellated themselves and wrung their hands – particularly those at The Times – perhaps the worst thing was that much of the public simply shrugged, as if this is something that happens all the time.
This kind of deception only fuels critics’ suspicion that journalists “make things up” to “sell newspapers” or to advance their own careers.
Runaway ambition and a culture that encourages the “big” story contribute to sensationalism and reporting that isn’t particularly useful to anyone except the upwardly mobile reporter.
There were other bad examples – ironically, during the week SPJ was trying to focus everyone’s attention on the need for ethical journalism.
Steven Glass, the former New Republic writer who was fired after being caught fabricating much of his work, is now on the hype circuit with a book of fiction that appears to be based on his five-year run at the magazine. His bad ethics have increased his earning power.
The editor of the Salt Lake Tribune resigned two days after firing two of the paper’s reporters for lying to him about selling information to the National Enquirer concerning the Elizabeth Smart case.
Until the resignations of Raines and Boyd, it wasn’t at all certain that heads would roll for the oversights and bad judgments in the Blair case.
“A healthy, constructive discussion on this matter would move beyond simplistic and wrong assertions,” said Leger in his statement soon after the Blair case hit the news circuit. “It would instead address what news organizations can do to ensure they have safeguards in place to protect themselves, our work and the public from people who would act in ways that undermine the fragile public trust we have.”
Ethics committee member Peter Sussman, a frequent and wise participant in these discussions, said, “My biggest concern is that we address the conditions, personal and institutional, that foster such offenses and stop the incessant, morally superior finger-wagging that may feel good but gets us nowhere.”
Journalists and students throughout the country, and elsewhere, often ask Ethics Committee members for advice. Recently a student from South Africa sent out a questionnaire about the Blair case.
The questions dealt mostly with the implications for journalism, for The New York Times and for other journalists.
Perhaps the worst outcome, I said, is that there has been comparatively little outrage from the public – as though readers are telling us they aren’t surprised by this sort of unethical behavior. It’s particularly disturbing that so few of Blair’s alleged sources made no complaint to The Times.
Like any pursuit, journalism has its saints and scalawags. The New York Times, though, was supposed to be above that. Its reporting was impeccable; its news judgments set the agenda for media outlets everywhere.
Now that an ethical scandal has rocked what was supposed to be the world’s most reputable newspaper, perhaps journalism schools will have more ethics classes, and newsrooms will spend more time discussing ethics.
Journalists clearly need to pay more attention to accurate, fair and ethical reporting. And not just during the last week of April every year, but constantly.
Fred Brown, co-chair of the Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com
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