Monday, September 24, 2007

Aurora High School Students Learn About Code of Ethics for Journalism from Andy Griffith Show

On Tuesday, I got to watch Andy Griffith episode with two classes of journalism and English students at Aurora High School in Aurora, Mo. To be more specific, it was episode #61, "Andy on Trial," which aired in April 1962.

We discussed the journalism Code of Ethics put together by the Society of Professional Journalists. Then we watched the video and applied the Code of Ethics to what happened in the story. It is a topic that struck a cord of interest with the students.

In some ways the Andy Griffith story reminded me of recent situations in southwest Missouri where journalists used their position to grind a personal ax. That is a dangerous and unethical practice and something most honest journalists avoid. But, it is something that is easy to let happen when newspaper staffs are so thin.

Let me make the point by giving a recap of the Andy Griffith episode:

Andy travels to Raleigh to locate noted newspaper publisher J. Howard Jackson and bring him back to Mayberry. Two weeks earlier, Andy ticketed the businessman for speeding. Mr. Jackson was issued a summons to appear before the Mayberry justice of the peace (Andy) within a few days. He chose to ignore the summons.

Now, a very irritated Mr. Jackson, accompanied by his lawyer, reluctantly returns to the small town to stand before Andy. He pleads guilty and is fined $15. Upset by having to travel that far to pay such a small fine, the irate publisher leaves the courthouse vowing revenge. When he returns to Raleigh, he orders one of his reporters, Jean Boswell, to go to Mayberry and dig up all the "dirt" she can find on Andy, then twist it into a scathing article against the sheriff. He wants Andy’s reputation destroyed.

Being very discreet, the reporter taps Barney for anything that could be used against Andy. Barney, caught up in all the attention, proceeds to tell the reporter that if he were in charge he would run the sheriff's department differently. Barney continues to complain about crimes going unpunished (Emma Watson's jaywalking) and the blatant unofficial use of the squad car (delivering groceries to a shut-in). As you can imagine, Mr. Jackson uses Barney's words to write a scathing article about Andy's administration.

The episode concludes with a hearing to determine if the charges against Andy can be substantiated... . Barney reluctantly tells the court that he did say the things printed in the article ... (but) goes on to defend Andy as the best friend he and the town of Mayberry ever had.

The specific codes most obviously violated in this story included the following ethical recommendations.

Journalists should:

— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

Barney Fife may have summed up the problem in this TV show, and in the real life problem, best by saying, "When you are dealing with people you do a whole lot better if you go not so much by the book, but by the heart."

Journalists are in the people business. Yes, go after wrong doers and pursue the information citizens need to know but make sure your reporting is accurate. It is also good to remember that every story and editorial impacts a real person. That fact should be weighed against what is written and the accuracy of it, especially if the journalist is tempted to "go after" someone with a story or editorial


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