Journalism ethics is one of SPJ’s primary missions. In this magazine, we regularly run stories about different ethical issues journalists face. At SPJ’s convention two months ago, much of the programming addressed ethical concerns. The Society has a well-established Code of Ethics that can be used when making decisions.
But for all of our talking, the journalism profession is never short of ethical lapses. This past year has been especially difficult, and high-profile scandals at prominent papers have damaged our profession’s credibility.
In this issue, we look at two big stories from the past year in which journalists stumbled because they strayed from high ethical standards.
The first story, which begins on Page 21, is about the media’s coverage of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch and her rescue from an Iraqi hospital during the war. Initial reports of the rescue relied heavily on anonymous sources, which turned out to be wrong. As rumors spread, the story grew bigger and more dramatic, turning Lynch into an American hero. Her hero status brought out the corporate greed, and large media companies competed for Lynch exclusives: everything from first interviews (news) to movie rights (entertainment). The news/entertainment lines began to blur as those offers came in the same proposals from heavy-hitting networks, leaving many journalists to question the independence of network news from its entertainment counterparts.
The second story begins on Page 27 and is about a pair of reporters at The Salt Lake Tribune who covered the kidnapping of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart. When the Smart kidnapping gained national attention, the reporters became pseudo-celebrities themselves – appearing on television, thinking about book deals, etc. But these aspiring reporters ended their journalism careers early by secretly selling their sources and inside information to a reporter with the National Enquirer. The truth was slow to come to light, and it took its toll on The Tribune newsroom.
When we run these stories or we talk about these things at our conferences, it’s not just to keep our readers and members informed of what’s going on elsewhere in the news business. We talk about these things because there are important lessons that can be pulled from them and applied to our own newsrooms. You don’t have to be covering a giant national story for The Washington Post or CBS News to learn something from the Lynch coverage. And the National Enquirer doesn’t have to be knocking at your door with offers for you to pull a lesson from the story in Salt Lake City.
The story about Jessica Lynch coverage clearly shows the dangers of relying on anonymous sources (not to mention relying on other news sources that relied on anonymous sources). And it also speaks to the eagerness in all of us to find drama in the stories we cover – even when it sometimes isn’t there. The search for dramatic stories may make for good reading, but it can easily become a dangerous thing in serious news coverage. Rick Bragg, the celebrated features reporter who resigned from The New York Times earlier this year, is another example of how good storytelling – which is something many of us strive for in our reporting – can become a hindrance to accurate newsgathering.
The lessons from The Salt Lake Tribune are a little less obvious. This is one more instance of young reporters making bad decisions – decisions that seem to be obviously bad ideas. It’s easy for us to think, “Oh, I’d never sell information to the National Enquirer.” But the road that brought those reporters to that point is one that many reporters find themselves on. When a story goes national, the reporters covering it are often sucked into the story itself; national news networks want interviews, publishers are interested in book deals, and the story likely dominates local news. As journalists, we place ourselves at the center of the biggest stories in our communities, and we usually know more about those stories than anyone else. At times, there’s a certain degree of celebrity status that comes with our work, and that status grows as the story grows. It’s easy to see how a reporter would try to cash in on that high-profile position.
When we read about these ethics scandals, I think it’s easy for us to roll our eyes and bemoan the fact that so many unethical journalists are working in our profession. What’s more difficult – but also very important – is to examine these scandals for lessons that can be applied to our own reporting.
It’s likely that, before they found themselves in the spotlight, many of the journalists we read about did their share of eye-rolling as well.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.