In Search of Journalistic Ethics

By Jennings, Marianne | USA TODAY, July 2000 | Go to article overview

In Search of Journalistic Ethics


Jennings, Marianne, USA TODAY


Print and broadcast media should be guided by five values: honesty, independence, fairness, productiveness, and pride.

A LAWYER by training and a newspaper columnist by avocation, I teach ethics at a business school. My career choices have made me realize that attorneys, businessmen, and journalists wrestle with the same ethical concerns, though journalists lace the greatest challenge. They not only have to decide whether to follow a code of ethics personally, but whether it should apply to the stories and subjects they cover professionally.

Journalists often regard ideas about right and wrong as old-fashioned and outmoded. Some fail to live up to high ethical standards. Consider this admission by a famous reporter: "Tales of lawsuits no court had ever seen involving names no city directory had ever known, poured from me. Tales of prodigals returned, hoboes come into fortune, families driven mad by ghosts, vendettas that ended in love feasts, and all of them full of exotic plot turns involving parrots, chickens, goldfish, serpents, epigrams, and second-act curtains. I made them all up."

Was it New Republic associate editor Stephen Glass? He was fired in May, 1998, for making up out of whole cloth half a dozen articles and fabricating portions of more than 20 others. Or was it Boston Globe columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle? It was revealed in June, 1998, that they were allowed to keep on writing for years after their editors suspected that they were making up people and events. Or was it CNN's star producer April Oliver? She was booted from the network in July, 1998, after airing a false story claiming that the U.S. military used nerve gas in Laos.

Actually, it was Ben Hecht, the legendary newspaperman who began his career at the Chicago Journal. In 1910, as a cub reporter, he confessed to making up news stories and was suspended for a week. Hecht was never again to write fiction as a journalist, but he did go on to do so as a highly successful novelist, playwright, and Hollywood screenwriter. You may remember seeing the original play or one of the many movie versions of his most famous script, "The Front Page," a 1928 comedy about--what else?--reporters caught up in their own lies. Journalists are tempted to fiddle with the truth because they need to write sensational stories that will sell newspapers. The "scoop" was everything back in 1910, and remains so today.

In 1947, Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, commissioned a report which concluded that the press wields enormous power for its own ends; propagates its own opinions at the expense of opposing views; allows advertisers to dictate editorial content; resists social change; prefers the superficial and sensational; endangers public morals; invades privacy; is dominated by one socioeconomic class; and interferes with the open marketplace of ideas.

Luce was livid when he read this report, fearing that Congress would step in and take control. Congress refrained, however, and the nation still has freedom of the press, as outlined in the First Amendment.

A newspaper publisher was once confronted by a prominent businessman who complained, "I don't like what your reporters and editors have been saying about my company." The publisher replied, "I'm sorry, but I can't control these people." We should not want to control "these people" through government regulation, but we should expect them to deal honestly and fairly with their subjects, and hold them responsible in the courts and the marketplace.

Eighteenth-century British conservative statesman Edmund Burke called the press the "fourth estate," implying that it was as important and influential as the three estates, or branches, of government. His contemporary and ideological foe, the French philosopher Francois-Marie Voltaire, came up with what (as it was later paraphrased) became the rallying cry of the press: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your fight to say it.

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