Journalistic Ethics: Lies, Damn Lies and the Media

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Professor of Legal and Ethical Studies, Arizona State University

Many journalists are said to lack high ethical standards. They are accused of fudging facts, telling lies, failing to avoid conflicts of interest, unfairness, failing to check facts, and lack of pride in their work. Speech to the Centre for Constructive Alternatives, Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan, February, 1999.

A lawyer by training and newspaper columnist by avocation, I teach ethics at a business school. People tell me that's four oxymorons in one sentence.

My unusual career choices have made me realize that lawyers, businessmen, and journalists wrestle with the same ethical concerns. But journalists face the greatest challenge. They not only have to decide whether to follow a code of ethics personally but also whether that code should apply to the stories and the subjects they cover professionally.

There's an old joke about journalism that bears repeating: Imagine that the Lord has just given Moses the Ten Commandments, which are the core of the ethical systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As the old Hebrew prophet descends from the mountain, the reporters crowd around him for the inevitable press conference. Then they report breathlessly to their television and radio audiences: "ladies and gentlemen, Moses has just returned from Mount Sinai with Ten Commandments from God, the two most important of which are..."

Unfortunately, journalists often regard ideas about right and wrong as old-fashioned and outmoded. And they often fail to live up to high ethical standards. Consider this real-life 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? Oliver 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, Hecht confessed to making up news stories and was suspended for a week. He was never again to write fiction as a journalist, but he did go on to do so as a highly successful novelist and Hollywood screenwriter. You may remember seeing the original or one of the many remakes of his most famous screenplay, 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 it still is today.

Freedom of the Press

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;

* interferes with the open marketplace of ideas. …