The SPJ Ethics Committee never lacks for questions to answer. Headquarters probably forwards an average of three or four questions a week to Gary Hill, Casey Bukro or me. Two of the most recent are problems often faced by journalists:
An educator wanted to know when it’s appropriate and necessary to attribute facts.
A reporter who had won an award he didn’t seek wanted to know whether he should accept it.
Questions like these come up all the time. They illustrate that ethics goes beyond exposing other people’s conflicts of interest and avoiding your own. Ethics is rooted in accurate reporting and responsible behavior.
Attribution is a sensitive issue in the wake of recent journalism scandals involving plagiarism and outright invention of information.
The simple answer to the question of when to attribute is to do it whenever you are borrowing someone else’s creativity or quoting someone’s opinion.
Attribution shouldn’t be necessary for commonly accepted facts. But that begs the question: What is a commonly accepted fact?
Most facts involving numbers can safely be used without attribution. But journalists are notoriously bad with arithmetic.
Still, it is not necessary to find an expert to tell you that increasing a sales tax by 0.6 percent will add 6 cents to a $10 purchase. That’s simple arithmetic. Of course, it will be necessary to attribute the tax-increase proposal itself to the person who is actually proposing it.
And some of the possible effects – sending shoppers out of the taxing district, or stirring opposition from merchants, for example – are opinions and interpretations and should be attributed to sources.
It’s also not necessary to attribute information you observe with your own senses. If you’re sent to the scene of a crash involving several cars and a truck hauling barrels of something, you needn’t find someone to confirm what you see, hear and even smell – crumpled cars, a truck on its side, barrels scattered across three lanes of freeway, honking horns, flashing emergency lights, the smell of gasoline and chlorine in the air. But confirming what was in the barrels and how the truck happened to roll over must be attributed to a person in authority, such as a police or fire officer.
Suppose a reporter lifts a string of facts for a sidebar from a book. Should the book be cited as a source? I’d say yes, but it needn’t be more than a credit line in a chart.
And if a reporter gets quotes from another article written by another reporter? If you can’t get your own direct quotes, definitely attribute, and along these lines: McSource was quoted by The Associated Press as saying “The mayor is a total bozo.”
So what about awards? Awards are important in today’s journalism, but sometimes they come out of the blue carrying baggage that troubles the award winner.
The question of whether to accept an unbidden award, especially one from an advocacy organization with a political agenda, is more the traditional sort of conflict of interest question. Reporters don’t want to be beholden to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
Without getting too specific, here’s what Ethics Committee Chairman Gary Hill advised one reporter whose colleagues – some of them anyway – questioned whether he should be accepting an award he didn’t seek.
“There are contests of all types,” Hill said. “Of course, the ones that are most highly valued are the ones that come from journalism organizations where the judging is done by fellow journalists. There we believe the sole purpose is to honor the best work.
“Advocacy organizations generally have an additional agenda. Of course they are honoring the work, but they are also interested in encouraging that work be done on their topic and that it be done in a way that is favorable to the organization’s goals.”
Sometime the awards include cash prizes or other incentives, such as a nice trip out of town to accept the award.
“I think you were on the right track not to accept the free trip,” Hill advised. Most ethical journalists would say the same. If the award is worth accepting, it’s worth paying for the trip. The journalist’s employer should make that decision.
Whether the award is worth accepting, like many ethical questions, has no pat answer. It depends on the mission and reputation of the organization giving the award, the possible motive for the award, even the nature of the story itself.
In this case, Hill said he wouldn’t attend the award ceremony, but he had no problem with accepting the award – or, I would add, with the organization offering it.
“After all, as you point out, you didn’t enter the contest,” Hill advised. “They decided independently to bestow this award upon your organization. Purists might say this is like being a little bit pregnant, but to me it just acknowledges the reality of the situation. They liked your work and honored it.”
And sometimes refusing such an award reveals an attitude that can be as big a problem as being too cozy with a source you’re covering. It’s the arrogance that comes with saying you’re better than your sources. Lighten up. Don’t be a snob.
Fred Brown, co-chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.
Tagged under: Ethics