Biggest Challenge: Our Ethical Foundations

By Smith, Kevin Z. | The Quill, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

Biggest Challenge: Our Ethical Foundations


Smith, Kevin Z., The Quill


AS FAR AS single questions go, it was the perfect one to ask when you're writing one of those end-ofyear, forward-looking pieces in hopes of capturing some thoughtful insight from purported experts.

"What is the single biggest challenge facing journalism in 2013?"

Where to begin wasn't my problem in answering. Rather, when do I stop?

A lot of things came to mind, but being the SPJ Ethics Committee chairman was what landed me on this list of contributors, so I played the cards I knew best for this international journal's audience. After all, ethical challenges aren't going away. And when you consider what 2012 brought us, you can assuredly say that we went headlong off the ethical cliff long before there was a fiscal one to worry over.

Last year was highlighted by a national election, and it provided us with perhaps the most active and challenging set of inquiries in recent years. SPJ's Ethics Hotline gave the committee a near daily stream of calls from journalists, citizens and fertile-minded college students seeking answers, clarification and enlightenment for their ethical conundrums. By year's end we were well past our expected 300 calls/emails a year.

Election coverage gave us a steady diet of inquiries on biased reporting, political posturing and cheerleading, mostly by the networks and their staffs. And there hasn't been a confession or an apology for the subjective, mangled and dishonest reporting of the issues. But, while the networks showcased our ethical lapses before the largest audiences, the lack of ethics wasn't limited to them. Across this nation, newsrooms of all sizes grappled with ethical challenges from within and sadly, too many chose personal interests over press responsibilities.

Then we ended the year with two ethical debacles that cemented the universal belief that journalists are void of professional ethics or common decency. When the New York Post ran a front-page photo of a man about to be killed by a subway train it was a low moment for our profession. But we took that single insensitive and incomprehensible behavior and multiplied it while reporting the mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn.

In a race to fill airtime and to be the first to report, journalists laid waste to the truth and showed a nation how bad and wrong journalism can be when we refuse to follow ethical guidelines of verifying information and showing compassion and sensitivity in reporting.

So, back to the biggest challenge for 2013.

If 2013 moves us further down the road to this kind of journalism, we will spend another year undermining our collective reputation, credibility and integrity. The challenge, therefore, is to be ethically brave and bold and reverse this trend. …

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