Evolving Ethics May Be Eroding Journalism

By Martin, Michael | St. Louis Journalism Review, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Evolving Ethics May Be Eroding Journalism


Martin, Michael, St. Louis Journalism Review


A changing code of ethics may be to blame for the public's largely negative perception of journalists, University of Missouri (MU)-Columbia researchers claim in a new study.

MU journalism professors Bonnie Brennen and Lee Wilkins compared two early codes, the 1923 American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) code and the 1934 American Newspaper Guild (ANG) code, with the 2003 New York Times code of ethics.

They found several significant changes that reflect the changing demands of the journalism marketplace--once privately owned, newspapers now publicly trade alongside thundering media giants that grow fatter every year.

"The work by the journalism faculty at the University of Missouri puts into sharp relief the astonishing differences between pre-World War II ideals and the present reality," said Rich Hanley, graduate programs director at the Quinnipiac University School of Communications in Hamden, Conn. "Their study is a great service to the profession and should trigger discussions on the value of ethical codes."

Code of the Times"

"The ASNE code set out to maintain the rights and dignity of the profession and tried to establish ethical standards for journalistic conduct," said MU's Brennen. "For example, the ASNE code says that invasions of privacy should be avoided unless the public warrants such intrusion, and editors are asked to not publish unofficial charges without giving the people the opportunity to defend themselves."

The ANG code, Brennen and Wilkins found, insists that reporters respect the rights of individuals by crafting factual reports that accurately represent unbiased accounts.

Unlike the other two codes, The New York Times code primarily addresses conflicts of interest that may affect the company's bottom line.

The Times code, for instance, prohibits staff members from freelance work that may compete with the newspaper.

Additionally, "staff members may not appear on broadcasts that directly compete with the Times' own offerings on television or the Internet."

By also interpreting "conflict of interest" broadly, Brennen and Wilkins claim, the Times code places its economic health on an equal footing with the public trust, deepening "one of the main fault lines in the profession: the tension between economic goals and public service."

"That's the great question of our age: how do you balance the premises of Wall Street with the public trust?" said Charles Davis, editorial department chair of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "That question is at the heart of a battle for the very soul of journalism."

Finally, where the ANG and ANSE codes focus on accuracy through careful evaluation of sources and the information they provide, the Times code makes no mention of these issues.

Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass may thus be the result of an evolving marketplace that has largely bypassed journalism's early traditions. Both reporters for prominent publications--Blair at The New York Times and Glass at the New Republic--ignored traditional ethics in hot pursuit of a journalistic tradition--the best-selling scoop.

"If the recent Jayson Blair incident is any indication, management's financial concerns--as articulated in the ethics code--have their parallels in real life," Wilkins said. "The emphasis reveals something central about the profession: concerns about financial profitability do remain on an equal footing with journalistic duty and service."

The Great Debate

"Journalism is not a product, like a widget or a bar of soap," Davis told SJR.

Nonetheless, its role as a profit center may be contributing to a "cultural drift in the mission of journalism that ultimately will diminish the role of journalism in society and lessen its impact in the discussion of important public affairs," said DePauw University communications professor Jeff McCall of Greencastle, Ind. …

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