Ethics & journalism

April 22, 2010

Many will read that and scoff.  Ethics and journalism; in the same sentence?  In the contemporary era of shout out news where far too often the loudest or most popular voice predominates, where corporate content can be packaged to appear as bona fide news, where a TV anchor’s personal appearances can be billed to be as important as the event they are ostensibly covering… are ethics being practiced?  Are ethics important or are they an inconvenience?

It is too facile to decry the apparent dearth, some might say death, of ethics today, but let’s not wring our hands and harken back to a bygone era when ‘things were different’ as if that is some balm for our current condition.  Let’s not just give up muttering it used to be different, but, heck, it is what it is today.

It does seem more dire as business decisions dictate, even now dominate, decisions at news organizations globally.  Advertorials, paid content masquerading as original reportage, even this week’s decision by the Gannett newspaper chain to allow a sports team to report on itself Reporter and Players Wearing Same Colors raise serious questions about independence, unbiased news and trustworthiness.

I was teaching ethics in journalism this week to graduate students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco;  it’s an important component in my writing for multimedia class, and I found that I was reminding myself and then reading aloud these words written by former CBS News President Richard (Dick) Salant.  This is from his preface to the CBS News Standards published in April, 1976.

He makes several salient points… including recognizing the difference between news & entertainment, the responsibility of news professionals to exercise their judgment and not be swayed by polls or audience opinions, and an obligation to report the news as it is, not as we want it to be.  I don’t normally quote whole paragraphs, but this is an exception.

“One (of his personal convictions) is the overriding importance to our form of journalism of drawing the sharpest possible line–sharp perhaps to the point of eccentricity–between our line of broadcast business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged, which is dealing in fiction and drama.  Because it all comes out sequentially on the same point of the dial and on the same tube, and because, then, there are no pages to be turned or column lines to be drawn in our journalistic matrix, it is particularly important that we recognize that we are not in show business and should not use any of the dramatic licenses, the “fiction-which-represents-truth’ rationales, or the underscoring and the punctuations which entertainment and fiction may, and do, properly use.  This may make us a little less interesting to some–but that is the price we pay for dealing with fact and truth, which may often be duller–and with more loose ends–than fiction and drama.

Second it is my strong feeling that our news judgments must turn on the best professional judgments that we can come to on what is important, rather than what is merely interesting.  Again, our function, then, contrasts sharply with the rest of the broadcast schedule which surrounds us, and, indeed, which supports us.  In general, to the extent that radio and television are mass media of entertainment, it is entirely proper to give most of the people what most of them want most of the time.  But we in broadcast journalism cannot, should not, and will not base our judgments on what we think the viewers and listeners are “most interested” in, or hinge our news judgment and our news treatment on our guesses (or somebody else’s surveys) as to what news the people want to hear or see, and in what form.  The judgments must be professional news judgments–nothing more, nothing less.

A corollary of this basic principle is that if we are to provide what is important for people to know, we must not shrink from reporting what is newsworthy even though there are no pretty or dramatic pictures to go with it.  There is nothing wrong with a talking head–provided the head has something to say and says it well.  We must not be carried away by the cliche, which, like almost all cliches, is only sometimes true, that a picture is worth a thousand words.  It may be and it may not be.  A few well-chosen, well-written, and, above all, thoughtful, words may often be worth a thousand pictures.  The most exciting thing in the field of information is an idea.

And, finally, this is as good a place as any to remind ourselves that our paramount responsibility at CBS News is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work–by individual citizen’s making up his own mind on an informed basis.  Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us.  We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren’t so.”
Now that does seem to be fair and balanced.  Dick Salant was a lawyer and broadcast manager whose judgments were thoughtful and worthy of being read and heard 34 years after he wrote them.  He could hardly have been prescient to the economic conditions that affect the news business today, but he was aware of the dangers that stem from blurred lines and indiscriminate, reckless or less-than-thoughtful reporting, as well as the need to educate the craftsmen and women to appreciate the noble profession and responsibility to our audiences.

So ethics in (and) journalism?  Yes.  It must be taught, nurtured, amended and refined.

I believe Mr. Salant’s last point is the most important — audience’s must have the information they need to make informed judgments presented without our opinion, slant, bias, preference and prejudice.

I enjoyed reading this to my students.  It seemed worth sharing with you.

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6 Responses to “Ethics & journalism”

  1. Jane Webster Says:

    Thank you Peter, for the encouragement and training of journalists in ethical procedure. In Albuquerque, this does not exist in local reporting. To my dismay, locals are bombarded with hack reporting in the worst sense. Neighbors are given face time in a crisis as if they were experts and they, in turn, become the story. Night after night this wretched format continues. I have no worthy local news to view. Reporters do not understand how the government functions at any level. News crawls at the bottom of the screen display spelling errors and issues with subject/verb agreement daily. The future I worried about is certainly now.

  2. Eric (Rick) Thomason Says:

    Thank God there are others who believe ethics and journalism should always be married!

  3. blattel Says:

    Peter, great post. You point out some serious ethical concerns!

    • Sharon Stevenson Says:

      Fine, fine post, Peter. I would only re-emphasize that the audience’s informed judgment is not just to decide on what to buy, or what to be aware of, but to preserve the essence of our democracy, i.e. an informed judgment on who to vote into office.


  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Blattel Comm, Eric (Rick) Thomason. Eric (Rick) Thomason said: Ethics & #journalism « Peter Shaplen Productions' Blog http://bit.ly/c9HDvd Thank God for those who believe the two should always be married […]

  5. Sharon Stevenson Says:

    Hummm. Would make a worthy op-ed I would think.


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