No person likes to confront co-workers or managers about issues in the workplace. The conversations can be uncomfortable and lead to hurt feelings. However, those discussions are often necessary to create a good work environment.
In addition to topics such as salary issues and disputes with co-workers, journalists may sometimes need to confront managers and co-workers about another touchy subject: ethics. Like those other matters, discussions about ethics are necessary.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is clear that journalists should “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.”
The first part of that principle is relatively simple, especially in today’s digital world. A journalist who sees an issue at another news organization can draw attention to it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks. The built-in immune system of the internet often intervenes to debunk misinformation and correct the record.
The second part of the principle is easier read than done, however. Journalists call the Society’s Ethics Hotline from time to time concerned about something in their newsrooms. Sometimes they’re looking for confirmation that a practice is unethical. Other times, they’re asking the Society to intervene.
Unfortunately for people who make the latter request, the Society often doesn’t have the resources to get involved in newsroom arguments. Fortunately, many disagreements can be settled through honest and direct conversations.
Here are some steps that can make those discussions more comfortable.
- Journalists who are concerned about decisions or behaviors in their newsrooms should research the issues. They can check the Society’s Code of Ethics and call the Ethics Hotline. People should also look to the past to see if other journalists or news organizations encountered similar problems. Their experiences may unlock possible solutions.
- Journalists should plan and rehearse their discussion. They should boil their concerns down to brief statements. The person should also stress that the concern is not being voiced out of bias against a co-worker but out of concern for the journalistic integrity of the news organization. The person requesting the meeting should also come prepared with a possible solution to offer.
- Journalists should be prepared for a range of reactions. As much as we like to believe every person in a newsroom is a rational and understanding individual, some people may react negatively if they feel attacked or have their judgment questioned.
- Journalists may want to bring in additional people to the conversation. A second or third voice may help add to a concern’s legitimacy. Managers and co-workers are less likely to dismiss a concern if they know it’s shared by more than one individual.
- Journalists who raise concerns must also be willing to help implement a solution. Any person can point out flaws and complain, but a person who truly cares must show they thought through the issue and will contribute to seeing it corrected.
- Journalists must know what outcome they’re willing to accept. If the person lodging the complaint is on the fence about the validity of the issue, perhaps they’re willing to be persuaded that it’s not a problem. On the other hand, a person must think ahead to their next step if they don’t get an acceptable outcome. They may request the publisher be looped into the conversation if the executive editor is unwilling to compromise, for example.
As in any profession, it’s also important for employees to examine their company’s workplace policies. Many organizations have written directions on how to file complaints or raise concerns. If a company doesn’t have a plan in place, the employees should ask for one to be drafted. Once one is in place, it’s important that employees follow those guidelines.
Journalists must also realize that not every discussion will end on a positive note. Co-workers, managers, producers and editors may not share an equal amount of respect for journalistic integrity or ethics, for example. If the issue is great enough, a journalist may need to decide whether they can continue working in that environment.
Hopefully these types of discussions rarely lead a journalist to make that decision. What’s important is that journalists feel comfortable with the stance and approach they take to resolve ethical issues.
Andrew M. Seaman is chairperson of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a digital editor for Thomson Reuters. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman
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