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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Ethics of Journalism: Up to the Journalist?

When instances like Herman Cain's recent demand to see the code of journalistic ethics occur, one cannot help but think about their own ethics as a journalist. To be clear, ethics are totally different than libel. Libel is a legal issue. Ethics is a...well, an ethical issue, for lack of an appropriate synonym.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists, there are four main parts to the Code of Ethics with several sub-points under each. Here's a general summary for each main part:
  • Seek truth and report it - Exhaust all resources in order to gather fair and true information and report it accurately.
  • Minimize harm - Be sensitive and show good taste. Treat fellow human beings with respect.
  • Act independently - The only obligation or association journalist's should have is to the "public's right to know."
  • Be accountable - Take responsibility and do not shift the blame. Stand by your reporting.
Going through this Code of Ethics, it is easy to see how individuals could interpret certain points differently than other people do. Which is fine, because the Code of Ethics is not legally binding; it is a set of guidelines that all journalists should refer to. Of course, every journalist has their own code of ethics that they base off of their own moral values. But should it be up to the journalist and/or publication to make ethical calls based on their own code, or should everyone be sticking to the same standard?

To exemplify how some points in the Code of Ethics can be subjectively interpreted, I am going to address a few based on my personal opinion. Since I have no beef with "be accountable," I'll be focusing on the first three parts of the code.

Under "seek truth and report it," there are two points that stick out to me: "Never plagiarize," and "Avoid stereotyping." "Never plagiarize" should be at the top of the list in giant, bold letters because plagiarism is never acceptable under any circumstances. Forgetting to attribute or cite is one thing--that can be corrected and is unintentional (not that it is okay). Also, the phrase "or fabricate/make things up" should be added to this, because some journalists' personal code of ethics allows that. Stephen Glass, anyone? 

As for "avoid stereotyping," yes, definitely try to avoid it and never glorify it, but it is true that everyone stereotypes even if they don't want to. It is not because people are ethnocentric or racist; stereotyping, at its most basic, is a categorization tool our brains use to cope with what we experience. As much as possible, journalist should keep stereotyping out of reporting, but sometimes we admit that we're human and people take great issue with that. Hello, Juan Williams

On to "minimize harm." One of the points is: "Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief." sensitive? People emotionally connect more when there are photos. Technically, if the people photographed are in a public space with no reasonable expectation of privacy, you can legally publish the photo. But as a matter of ethics, it really depends if: a) the photo is essential to the story, or b) if the photo will allow people to emotionally connect with the story. If people are crying at a public vigil, and the story is about the vigil, I'm publishing the photo. If someone is receiving news at their front door that their spouse was found dead, and I happen to get a picture, I won't publish the photo because it's an invasion of privacy. Also, don't print something emotionally charged for shits and giggles. It has to have a point.

"Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity." People still get offended by gruesome pictures, but most people are so desensitized that I wouldn't be very strict with this, even though I personally would not want to look at gruesome photos. And let's not forget about tabloids. They thrive on being over-the-top, so no one should be surprised by offensive photos that show up. Also, journalism is a business. If a publication needs to up readership, I can understand why they might publish a photo of a grisly murder scene. Anything out of the ordinary grabs readers.

Lastly, "act independently." "Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity." The last two words of this are the only part that makes this statement legitimate. And of course, whether or not journalistic integrity is compromised is up to the journalist or the publication. Also, please, anyone, show me a journalist who doesn't ever let political involvement affect what they do. I would love to meet them. Some publications follow this guideline very strictly, to the point of paying for a movie ticket at a free movie screening so the review is not affected by the fact that it was free. Others are understandably more lax: If President Obama offers you a comped press spot on his private plane because your publication is doing a story on his meeting with the government of wherever he's going, you don't turn it down. 

"Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable." I think this should also be one of the most important guidelines journalists should follow. My personal feeling is that if you're a public figure--anyone from Justin Bieber to Hilary Clinton--you have very little privacy. I draw the line at trespassing and illegally obtaining information. If something in a public figure's personal life is affecting their professional life in any way, it's fair game. If a politician is making raunchy sex videos with his wife behind closed doors and not putting it on the Internet or anything, then fine. But if he's doing it at a whore house, yeah, I'm going to investigate that and hold him accountable. Not only do I find that morally reprehensible, but prostitution is illegal and, ideally, someone who is representing government should not be doing anything illegal (yes, I know that sounds extremely naive).

I apologize if this post comes off as rant-like, but sometimes that happens when expressing one's opinion. I want to know what you think about the ethics of journalism, so leave a comment or tweet at me!

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