Imagine: A reporter doing a feature story on a five-star restaurant glimpses a cockroach scuttle across the floor during an interview with the owner. A newsroom grapples with reporting on a high school student’s suicide, a difficult issue made more complicated when the divorced parents disagree over how much information to provide. A radio reporter returns from an event with a damaged tape but is able to locate a tape with similar background sound that was recorded a year earlier.
As ethical issues seemingly become more numerous and complicated, newsrooms throughout the country are utilizing a variety of educational strategies and training opportunities to help reporters and editors find their way through the muddle. Their approaches range from structured and formal, such as sending reporters to on-site training at journalism institutes such as the American Press Institute and the Poynter Institute, to the less formal and more ad hoc — things such as brown bag discussions and roundtables facilitated by in-house talent.
It is an issue of no small consequence. The ethical foundation of a news organization affects its credibility, says Sheila Garland, director of newsroom training for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And credibility is the real currency that we have with our readers.”
Bryan Monroe, assistant vice president/news at Knight Ridder, takes it a step further: “If we can’t be believed,” he said, “we have no value.”
But while a spate of headline-grabbing cases of plagiarism, misrepresentation and fabrication have heightened awareness and encouraged journalists to increase their vigilance, many news managers say their current ethics training is part of an ongoing conversation that started long ago.
“For us,” Garland said, “it’s been a chance to build on what we already had in place here.”
Beyond plagiarism and fabrication
The most egregious cases of ethical breaches — Jayson Blair’s fabrications and plagiarism at The New York Times, for example, and Jack Kelley’s misconduct at USA Today — garner widespread public attention, but some news managers insist they are not the ethical issues that threaten the credibility of the individual news organization.
“In the cosmic realities, Jayson and Jack affect things, but I have to think the day-to-day process is more important,” said Caesar Andrews, editor of the Gannett News Service and past president of the Associated Press Managing Editors. “The credibility of a given newspaper will be shaped by seemingly mundane things, not atrocities. It’s going to be spelling, intersections, whether numbers add up.”
For that reason, Andrews, who was a 2001 Poynter Ethics Fellow, and other news managers argue that training and discussions about ethics must necessarily go far beyond the obvious issues such as stealing another’s work and passing falsehood as fact.
“Because the public doesn’t parse, I consider all aspects of what we do to be connected to ethics-slash-credibility-slash-standards-slash-trust-slash-believeability,” Andrews said. “How we gather information, what we publish and air, the history and previous relationship between the media and the public, all of that affects how the public perceives our credibility.”
Indeed, a snapshot of various news organizations suggests that news managers have crafted a variety of activities under the rubric of training and education that intertwine broad discussions about best journalistic practices with more specific discussions about ethical issues.
From brown bags to bus tours
Poynter Institute ethics training forms the backbone of much of the discussion at The Oregonian, where a core of newsroom leaders has instilled ethics into the overall newsroom culture and day-to-day decision-making, says public editor Michael Arrieta-Walden.
While highly publicized ethical breaches heighten awareness, Arrieta-Walden says, ethics has a much finer point: “Do I describe this scene or another? Do I use this anecdotal lead or does that cast the story in a way that’s unfair or incomplete? Is it right to lead the budget story with an anecdote about the effects of the budget cuts when you could lead with an anecdote about the effects on the taxpayer?”
Arrieta-Walden, a 2004 Poynter Ethics Fellow, replicates much of his own Poynter training during the management training sessions he conducts for new managers and journalists who aspire to management. He also has conducted sessions for suburban news managers and brown bag discussions for interns.
In addition, the Oregonian sponsors ongoing sessions often led by in-house talent that range from investigative reporting to ethics to answering the telephone.
Poynter ethics training also has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which this spring hosted a daylong ethics workshop at the Cox Enterprises headquarters and opened to Journal-Constitution staff, area journalists and journalism educators. Staff from Poynter and the Journal-Constitution combined to provide case studies and discussions on issues ranging from plagiarism and attribution to bringing more viewpoints into the decision-making process.
“It was a chance for folks to take a step back, to think about how they report stories, to think about who the stakeholders are, to think about what really affects the way their stories are perceived by readers,” Garland said.
A full-time public editor at the Journal-Constitution has a long tradition of bringing the public’s concerns about credibility and fairness into newsroom discussions, and the Poynter workshop was “another chapter in our conversation about ethics,” she said.
But, Garland is quick to point out, conversations about ethics don’t require the resources of the Poynter staff or a public editor.
Each month starting this year, for example, the Journal-Constitution has provided a bus tour to a new geographical area to help newspaper leaders learn more about their readership and how that readership perceives the newspaper. The reporters who cover the area serve as tour guides.
A recent tour to South DeKalb County, which Garland described as a middle-class African-American readership area, included a tour of a 25,000-member “mega-church,” lunch at the first black-owned hotel in the area and discussions with grassroots community leaders and government officials.
In addition to other training for newsroom staff and interns, last year a Journal-Constitution task force of 50 people developed a series of “best practices” to ensure credibility. This year, those best practices provide the focus of ongoing small-group discussions designed to tap into institutional knowledge and facilitate exchange of information.
“Any newspaper can do that,” Garland said, “and any newspaper can have a bus tour.”
At Gannett newspapers, the “Gannett Newspaper Division Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms” that were formalized in 1999 serve as the underpinning for ethics training companywide. The statement, which is signed by the employees, includes specific pledges dealing with five broad areas: “Seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way,” “Serving the public interest,” “Exercising fair play,” “Maintaining independence” and “Acting with integrity.”
“It’s the absolute greatest basis for newsroom conversations about ethical principles,” said Linda Grist Cunningham, executive editor of the Rockford Register Star whose background includes ethics training at the American Press Institute. “It opens the door to conversations. It sets very strong and specific guidelines for what we mean by ethical principles so there’s not this guessing that goes on in most newsrooms.”
At the Register Star, newsroomwide workshops held at least annually include half-day or three-hour reviews of the principles, their key components and what they mean. That discussion is followed by two or three hours of small-group discussions about hypothetical ethical situations.
Much of the statement of principles is published in the newspaper, and every year a credibility project built around the principles is conducted with readers. One year, for example, the newspaper asked news sources and online readers to vote on how they would handle hypothetical ethical situations that were posed to them.
Gannett newspapers utilize a variety of activities to foster internal and external ethics communication, including small-group newsroom discussions and newspaper columns designed to explain newspaper practices. Ann Clark of Gannett’s corporate news division compiled and published a list of such activities. They have included: having five senior editors each address one principle on the Sunday op-ed page (the Tucson Citizen); explaining the principles in newspaper ads that also invited reader questions (the Star-Gazette in Elmira, N.Y.); including employees from advertising, circulation and business offices in mandatory annual ethics training (the Oshkosh Northwestern); creating an accuracy task to track errors and analyze what procedures or training would help prevent them (the Arizona Republic); and asking regular letter-writers to be guest columnists who comment on weaknesses in the newspaper and suggest ways to improve (the Ithaca Journal). The full list is available at Gannett’s Web site.
Jayson Blair’s ethical breaches at The New York Times stand at the forefront of institutional memory, but lapses at other newspapers have resulted in a renewed commitment to ethics training.
The editor of The Salt Lake Tribune resigned last year following the controversy that resulted when two reporters sold salacious rumors about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case to the National Enquirer. After the editor’s resignation, the paper brought in two members of the Poynter staff for three days to “get a handle on where we were and to head us in a new direction,” said reader advocate Connie Coyne.
The Tribune’s new ethics code, started during that process and completed this summer, will be discussed at brown bags and made available on the newspaper’s Web site and the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Web site.
A representative from Northwestern University’s Readership Institute is scheduled to lead two three-hour sessions about how people use news stories. That will be followed by discussions on Tribune readership demographics because of a belief that the newspaper cannot adequately serve publics it does not understand.
“It’s all ethics,” Coyne said. “Every discussion you make in a news huddle ends up being an ethical issue. If you look at your front-page plan for the next day and decide it’s too depressing for people, and you throw a ’Hey, Martha’ story in there, which story you take off is an ethical decision.”
Other news organizations have various formal, written ethics codes and policies designed to be educational guideposts for newspaper staff and to increase public understanding of the organizations’ commitment to the tenets of good journalism.
At Knight Ridder, for example, a 24-page Credibility Handbook was started in 2003 in the aftermath of Jayson Blair. But Blair’s “misdeeds merely put a name and a face to the ever-flagging credibility of newspapers,” The Charlotte Observer’s Frank Barrows wrote in the handbook’s introduction.
Each of the handbook’s four sections — transparency, accuracy, integrity and objectivity — contains conclusions and specific recommendations that draw extensively on material from American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American Press Institute, the Poynter Institute and individual Knight Ridder newspapers. The guide is available on the corporate Web site.
In addition, a series of action steps and policy guidelines is under review by the leadership teams at the 31 member-newspapers, said Monroe. Monroe, with colleague Jerry Ceppos, leads ethics discussions during roundtables held at Knight Ridder newspapers that are in addition to the ethics conversations held by individual newspapers.
“We’re taking this very, very seriously,” Monroe said.
Ethics training can be as simple as day-to-day conversations intended to exchange points of view and keep ethical issues in the forefront of the news production process, news managers say. At the Mobile Register, for example, editor Mike Marshall allots time for discussion of an ethical issue during the weekly editors’ planning meeting. The discussion could be triggered by something specific to the newspaper’s coverage, or it could be a more general issue or policy that Marshall puts on the table, says Managing Editor Dewey English. One of the editors writes a report about each meeting that is distributed electronically to the newsroom group.
“We’re not just there talking about the week ahead,” English said. “Ethical situations have come to the fore. Ethics have become part of the newspaper landscape.”
At the Mankato (Minn.) Free Press, Editor Deb Flemming intends to follow lengthy discussions about how the newspaper will ensure uniform handling of candidate filings with a series of brown bag discussions that focus on the ethical issues involved in election coverage. The newspaper also recently had lengthy discussions that resulted in a clarified dateline policy.
Some news organizations utilize the training offered by state associations during regional meetings and annual conventions, Flemming said. Among other activities, the Minnesota News Council — one of three news councils in the United States — offers annual ethics training at the Minnesota Newspaper Association conventions and brings on-site ethics workshops and forums to individual news organizations.
The problem, says Gary Gilson, executive director of the council, is that training has costs.
“Many of these papers are strapped for manpower, and they don’t want to take the time,” Gilson said. “If you look at them, you’ll see one reporter has six bylines in the same paper. These people are killing themselves.”
National Public Radio faces a similar problem in which key people are needed on the shows, and shows tend to be “thin on the bench,” says Jonathan Kern, executive producer for training at NPR News. The solution, he says, has been to keep seminars as short as possible and to provide back-up replacement people to free others for training.
Kern shares ethics training responsibilities with Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s ombudsman who last year finished a 15-month process of writing an ethics guide for public radio, which is available on the NPR Web site. Both offer ethics training to NPR member-stations that includes exercises and scenarios designed to facilitate discussions on a variety of ethical issues.
Dvorkin includes issues such as use of sources, ethical use of sound, editing without distortion, resisting pressure intended to influence coverage — “the Journalism 101 things that people need to be reminded of from time-to-time,” he said.
During those visits, he insists that management and business-side people be included in the discussions.
“It’s nice to wrap yourself in a flag of journalistic ethics,” he said, “but if you don’t have a way to talk to people on the business side, they will do what they do, you will do what you do, and that’s a recipe for conflict and disaster.”
Kern’s sessions, at their core, focus on fairness and balance and are designed to encourage journalists to think differently. One exercise, for example, is intended to challenge journalists to seek out sources with different beliefs and backgrounds than their own to prevent what Kern calls “incestuous amplification” — reinforcing a belief system by talking with only like-minded people. Another uses real-life scenarios to show that the same story can be framed in entirely different ways: framing a story about Bush tax cuts, for example, in terms of either the bypassed working poor or the revived economy. Still others encourage reporters to question assertions and to avoid loaded language that connotes a viewpoint.
“There’s a tremendous need for ethics training,” Kern said. “People are struggling with this. ’Can I accept a military ride when we don’t accept gifts worth money?’ ’I used the same music that they played at the time, but I got a recording of it later. Should I not have used that sound?’ ’Would it be alright if …?’ People are struggling all the time.”
In addition to Kern’s work, Bruce Drake, vice president for news, led in-house discussions on the new NPR News Code of Ethics and Practices, which also is available at on NPR Web site.
If inclusion of sound adds another level of ethical issues so, too, does the inclusion of images, especially when broadcast journalism “too often goes for the sensational and gives people what they want to see rather than what they need to see,” said Stephen Stock, investigative reporter/Oscala bureau chief for WESH-TV, Orlando, and a 2004 Poynter Ethics Fellow.
In addition to hosting Poynter seminars, WESH annually sponsors a producers academy for up-and-coming producers from stations owned by Hearst-Argyle and Belo from across the country. Led by veterans from throughout the chains, the sessions also include an ethics component.
Despite a flagging public confidence in newspapers — exacerbated by Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and the nearly dozen cases of ethical breaches that have been reported since — Stock and other news managers say the proliferation of news outlets and the cacophony of voices that have resulted bodes well for news organizations that are committed to ethically grounded, best-practices journalism.
“You survive those major cases — and I hope never to be an expert on this — by recommitting,” said Gannett News Service’s Andrews. “You show it was an aberration and not a matter of course. Because of the preponderance of sources of information, there’s actually an appetite for places that are credible and get it right. You have people saying, ’When I have a million choices, can someone please tell me what the real deal is?’ And that’s what we’re claiming we do.”
Bonnie Bressers is an assistant professor of journalism at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.