Sunday, August 27, 2006

Would Established Code Make News Media More Ethical?

Major ethical failures have occurred in journalism at virtually every level over the past two years. Public attention and outrage have been drawn to made-up quotes, fabricated stories, plagiarism, and accusations of biased reporting.

Amid this ongoing parade of scandals, talk has been growing about the need for a code of ethics among journalists. Some groups have even begun to float the idea of licensing journalists and/or requiring them to pursue continuing education, as some other professions do.

But the fact is, the Society of Professional Journalists (in which membership is voluntary) has a well-established code of ethics. That organization regularly offers ethics training for journalists, as do other media companies and educational institutions. High-quality ethics training is readily available.

In fact, some of the worst national-level violators of the journalism code of ethics previously attended many ethics training sessions.

I grimace every time I hear the unreasonable expectations that the public places on ethical codes. The fact is, codes of ethics do not make people ethical. They don't make bad people good any more than they make people with poor judgment become wise.

I was reminded of this after the recent hurricanes brought out scam artists and unethical behaviors, even during relief efforts. Would this have been different if we had a Disaster Code of Ethics? Of course not.

Most of the worst examples of ethical lapses we have seen among journalists in the past few years would not have been stopped by an established, written ethics code.

According to the "Character Counts" program taught through 4-H, ethics involve two aspects: discernment (knowing right from wrong) and discipline (the moral will to do what is right). A code of ethics may define what is acceptable and provide a basis for imposing penalties on those who don't follow the code. But unless it reinforces an established ethical culture, such a code won't do much to make people do what is right.

Don't get me wrong: it's a good idea to set standards of conduct in certain professions and outline what is allowed under existing law. In effect, ethics codes transform one perspective of a moral obligation into a binding rule. But such a code can't make people ethical any more than workshops or textbooks can.

Research by the Josephson Institute of Ethics has shown that people do not automatically develop good moral character. Efforts must be made to develop the values and abilities necessary for moral decision-making and conduct, and there must be a base-line or standard.

Character education is an obligation of families, faith communities, schools, and other human-serving groups. Positive character development is best achieved when those groups work together. Every adult — including every journalist — has the responsibility to teach and model core ethical values and to promote the development of good character.

If it is character that's missing from the journalism profession, then much more is needed than just a code of ethics.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The news media is only as ethical as the reporters doing the work.

In general, small weekly newspapers have staffs that are more in touch with the community. But there are two huge factors that impact the media's ability to behave ethically: profit margins and moral degradation.

The emphasis on profit by media ownership makes ethics secondary.

If being ethical sells more advertisement then thumbs-up. But, most of the time it doesn't sell more newspapers so ethics are really secondary to getting, or making up, a big story.

There are big examples of this (USA Today and NY Times) but there are plenty of local examples too (News-Leader) where stories are exaggerated and then covered on a daily basis when no real story existed.

As for moral degradation, it is the same problem facing our society.

The founding fathers knew this -- a population with no moral foundation cannot be lead and cannot be trusted. National surveys continue to show that a very, very, very small percentage of journalists claim to be Christian. Most are agnostic or anti-religion, which impacts ethics. After all, if you don't have a standard to guide your decisions (like a Christian standard) it is pretty easy to make your ethical standard a moving target.

I believe that is referred to as situational ethics.

11:29 AM, August 30, 2006  

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