When I speak to students about ethics, I call this the “duh” section. There are no absolute rights in journalism and very few absolute wrongs. The latter are the “duh” section: You cannot take someone else’s words and pass them off as your own.
Some years ago while teaching a freshman composition course at a state college, I received a paper from a student whose writing had taken an astounding turn for the better. Suspecting she plagiarized the paper, I investigated and, not to my surprise, discovered she had lifted wholesale from an online source.
In slightly more than a year, the American public has been treated to some of the most high-profile and media-hyped criminal trials in decades. Since July 2011, we have given the watchful public Casey Anthony, Conrad Murray, John Edwards, Roger Clemens and Jerry Sandusky, each catapulted into the national spotlight and scrutinized under the hot lights of the media.
People magazine pulled no punches with its April 9, 2012, cover showing deceased Florida youth Trayvon Martin’s innocent good looks peering over the emboldened yellow wording: “An American Tragedy.” It was a clear message with an obvious editorial agenda, magazine design students from the University of Central Florida told me recently during a visit to that school, pulling no punches of their own in their critique of the cover.
I was watching TV the night news broke of singer Whitney Houston’s death. My phone buzzed shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, with an Associated Press news alert. I made a quick post on Facebook, and within minutes the social medium was red hot with comments.
A former student of mine, now working for a metro paper, called recently to ask about the ethics of reporting suicides. A businessman had jumped from a high-rise apartment onto a bustling street below, leaving behind a grieving wife and three daughters.
Each week thousands of people visit the SPJ website, and many of them navigate to the ethics page to read our Code of Ethics. In fact, aside from the homepage, the ethics page has the single largest population of unique visitors in the last year, nearly 35,000.
As calls to the SPJ ethics hotline have come in over the past year, it’s clear to me that one area of ethics has distanced itself from the rest in terms of concerns, questions and complaints. That is conflicts of interest.
Editor’s Note: Since this column was written, ABC has announced that it will no longer engage in the practice of checkbook journalism, though it did leave open the possibly of an “extraordinary circumstance” leading to the use of licensing fees. Is it time to wave the white flag, hold our noses and get over it — “it” being the increasing practice of news organizations paying money to news sources?
One of the strongest voices for the defense of a federal shield law, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced in early April that he was willing to again author a version of the Free Flow of Information Act. Some might consider it a futile effort given that a version of a shield bill has been introduced on the Hill since 2005 with no success, albeit with some progress of acceptance.
Once upon a time, I covered two funerals. One was a funeral for two girls killed in a crash with a state trooper who was speeding. The other was for a pastor gunned down in mid-service by an apparent schizophrenic. What was the ethical difference between covering these two funerals?
More than four years ago at a meeting of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board of directors in Indianapolis, two board members asked if I’d be interested in editing a fourth edition of SPJ’s widely acclaimed book on journalism ethics. It was in a dark and smoky cigar bar in Indianapolis, Mac McKerral insists, though I remember the rather sterile second floor of the SPJ headquarters where McKerral, a former SPJ president, and Howard Dubin, longtime treasurer of the SDX Foundation, first mentioned it to me.
In October, while attending the BlogWorld and New Media Expo 2010 in Las Vegas, I found myself anxiously scanning the convention program looking for a session on journalism ethics. I mean, after all, I was the newly appointed SPJ Ethics Committee chairman, and I wanted to get my hands good and dirty at this convention.
In June, weekly newspaper editors from around the world visited The Mountain Eagle in Kentucky, a paper known for its plucky pursuit of truth in coal-mining territory. I heard Editor Ben Gish recall a police officer intentionally burning down the newspaper office many years ago.
At the intersection of technology and journalism, there’s a debate about fairness, privacy and punishment. Because of the Internet, news about arrests of people in many of our local communities is permanently and easily available online. Some people object that stories or cop-log briefs about arrests pop up during Google searches, years after the cases were resolved and the offenders tried to move on.
I love connections. A friend and I regularly trade “Six Degrees” stories about who we just met and how they fit into some other facet of our lives, through channels we wouldn’t have predicted. Professionally, though, I’m leery of having ties to people, places or events in my community.
The New York Times is accustomed to controversy and criticism for its high-profile journalistic decisions. Recently, in a peculiar turn of events, the newspaper was targeted for saying and doing nothing. As best as I could tell, the Times was not to blame for the frenzied rumors swirling around the capitol in Albany, N.Y.
When the SPJ Ethics Committee started a blog, and we wanted a catchy name, I suggested “Canon Fodder.” Others on the committee correctly rejected that idea. The double meaning didn’t work. We didn’t want anyone confusing the rules governing other professions with the principles guiding journalism.
Jeremiah Charles Overbaugh met the woman he’d marry while inspecting chickens at a hatchery. As a single parent, Marlene Plant got her driver’s license when she was in her 40s and later beat cancer. Ann Mary Roberts had six best friends: her dogs Quigley, Sadie and Shamrock and her cats Hootie, Miss Kitty and Sweetie Man.
The sudden appearance of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho’s mental health records in July, more than two years after the massacre, brings renewed interest in how the mental health of college students is monitored. Suicide is a very present and real threat on America’s college campuses.
We all likely committed some version of this cognitive error while driving: We bawled out “What a stupid idiot!” to some driver who swerved into the wrong lane. It’s instinctive. We assume that the person behind that car’s wheel has to have an IQ of zero and no coordination.
The photo ran on the front page, above the fold. Several government officials were lined up; one smiled and held oversized scissors, about to cut a ribbon. President Barack Obama, also grinning, was tucked into the group. One of my co-workers saw the front page and the picture in a vending box, briefly frozen by our competitor’s prominent scoop.