In the same week that Congress voted to allow public schools to post the Ten Commandments on their walls, Gannett Co. issued its Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms.
According to the King James Version of the Bible, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with 326 words to guide humanity's conduct in all matters. Gannett's 30-person committee of editors, reporters, corporate executives, lawyers, and assorted outside experts needed 2,685 words just to lay down rules on how to be an ethical newspaper journalist in the 1990s. But, then, Gannett is still nursing the wounds inflicted by an unscrupulous investigative reporter, while Moses, in his reporting, always relied on an unimpeachable source.
We should not kid, though that is not expressly forbidden by either the Ten Commandments or the Gannett Principles. The fact is, Gannett has set down some serious admirable, even guidelines that address the central dilemma for U.S. journalists at the end of the century: The public wants news organizations to uncover the truth about government and society, but to be honorable and aboveboard during its pursuit.
We agree with the code's attempts to stanch the promiscuous use of unnamed sources and its admonition that editors should be skeptical of blockbuster stories. Would that CNN or the San Jose Mercury News had heeded similar advice before airing the "Tailwind" story or publishing "Dark Alliance."
There's even something brave, in this litigious era, about creating ethical guidelines at all. We can just imagine a plaintiff attorney quoting directly from the code: "`Do not allow unnamed sources to take cheap shots in stories. …