News Junkie Interviews Himself on Ethics

By Seigenthaler, John | Nieman Reports, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview
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News Junkie Interviews Himself on Ethics

Seigenthaler, John, Nieman Reports

Aging editors with high blood pressure, low sperm counts, gray in their hair and time on their hands tend, in retirement, to get hooked on the news of the day. We always were journalism junkies, second-guessing ourselves before the first edition rolled and third-guessing ourselves after the final edition was on the streets.

But the over-the-hill-post-maturity-pre-senility news addiction is something different. We aren't on hard drugs, and aren't just popping aspirin. We are somewhere between the heat of passion and the chill of impotency when it comes to reacting to the content of the news, the play of news, or the ethics of how journalists work.

It is a confusing habit, maybe like getting a fix on methadone. A permanent semi-high, without the sheer joy of the editor's kick or the chronic complaint, the reader's kick. In an effort to try to understand the nature of the addiction I conducted the following self-interview:

Q. - Now that you are no longer a working editor, do you think you read and look at news more like an average reader, like Joe and Jane Six Pack?

A. - No. I've still got the daddy habit and have to have several fixes a day. But I am not as intense a critic as when I was a questioning journalist. Neither am I as passive a critic as a doubting non-journalist.

Q. - Some of your former editor-peers now think that Joe and Jane Six Pack are going cold turkey on the news because they are convinced that journalists have no ethics. Do you agree?

A. - I certainly agree that many readers and viewers of the news believe that. It isn't so. Journalists I know have a high sense of ethics.

Q. - You know that some editors want a strongly worded new written code of ethical conduct. Do you think it is needed?

A. - I don't. The problem is not that journalists don't have ethical standards. The problem is that they don't let the public know how highly they value ethics. Or what ethics means to a reporter or editor.

Q. - So what would you propose instead of a new code of conduct?

A. - There are five points every journalist worth his or her by-line believes in: First, serve your readers as the First Amendment gives you the right. Second, be fair. Third, be accurate. Fourth, correct errors. Finally, avoid any conflict or potential conflict of interest.

Q. - I suppose you did a good job of explaining your five points toy our readers when you were a reporter and editor.

A. - I did a lousy job. Most editors do a lousy job. When I did get around to explaining the newspaper's ethics, it was usually when I was on the defensive, when the paper was under attack.

Q. - So explaining journalistic ethics to readers has come to you too late to do anything about it - after you are no longer an editor?

A. - With a receding hairline and spreading bald spot comes humility and wisdom. I hope not too late.

Q. - Your five points don't even touch on sticky subjects like confidential sources.

A. - That's because they are sticky. Different newspapers and television outlets have different rules to deal with sticky subjects. Some newspapers, for instance, won't allow a reporter to grant a confidential relationship to a source without the approval of the newspaper's management. Some news organizations won't rely on any confidential source. Some will allow needless reliance on confidential sources anytime. Some have a two-source rule. Others hold that a single, proven, reliable source is adequate. Some editors have burned their confidential sources after a reporter granted confidentiality.

Q. - How can you solve a dilemma like that?

A. - I think fairness and accuracy, taken seriously, will cover it.

Q. - Why do people - the news-reading-and-viewing public-have a better feeling about the ethics of other professionals - doctors, lawyers, even accountants - than they do about journalists?

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