We Need Ethics Examples

Article excerpt

Today's news media offer few role models for students studying journalism ethics.

You ought to feel sorry for me. I teach an undergraduate course in journalism ethics at a time when ethics seems to matter less and less in the conduct of professional journalists. My students and I want to believe that journalism is, in proto-investigative reporter Jacob Riis's stirring phrase, "the noblest calling of all," but then we glance at a newspaper or flip on a television and are reminded once again that it just isn't so.

The other day I flipped on MSNBC - a big mistake, it turned out, given my already fragile state of mind. Who should be guest-hosting one of the blaba-thons that pass for insightful news coverage on the channel but Mike Barnicle. This is the same Mike Barnicle who resigned in disgrace from the Boston Globe in 1998 after evidence mounted that he plagiarized items and fabricated sources and quotes for his popular column.

As I stared at his mug - he has the large, lumpy features of a football player from the pre-face-mask era - I kept wondering, what's this miscreant doing holding forth on television? For that matter, what's he doing writing a regular column for the New York Daily News? I always thought there was no room in journalism for liars and thieves. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics plainly states "Deliberate distortion is never permissible" and "Never plagiarize." And yet here was Barnicle, who had broken these precepts (or at least mangled them pretty badly) posing with the connivance of MSNBC as a model journalist. I felt like throwing up.

There is no shortage of journalistic codes of ethics, just of ethical journalism. Codes say journalists should avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, but news organizations deliver frequent jolts of sex, blood and scandal to capture public attention. Codes say journalists should identify sources whenever feasible, but even routine political stories now contain anonymous quotes. Codes say journalists should distinguish between news and advertising, but a profits-above-all mentality has eroded the line between the two. Codes say journalists should show compassion for people affected by tragedy or grief, but scoop-hungry reporters trample privacy and other rights underfoot in their mad rush to be first with the latest.

If ethics has any practical purpose in newsrooms today, it is as silver polish for tarnished news judgments. The Arizona Republic provides a particularly grisly example of what I mean. This past summer a Phoenix man committed suicide by lying down on a conveyor belt and feeding himself into a wood chipper. To add to the horror of the incident, he tried to drag his finance in after him. Metro team leader Bill Hart assured readers in an editorial note that he and his staff wrestled all day with the question of whether this was news or "a titillating grostequerie disguised as news" Guess what they decided? …