jump to navigation

Ethical challenge: Can anybody prove that Modern Journalism has a real code of ethics? Didn’t think so. 1/6/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Ethics.

Octogenarian Helen Thomas, known by some as the “Dean of the White House press corps,” whined the other day that “bloggers and everyone…with a laptop thinks they’re journalists…They don’t have our ethics.” Given that journalism never established itself as a true profession with features such as governing bodies, licensing procedures, continuing education requirements, or an official code of ethics, it’s fair to ask what exactly are the ethics that journalists practice that the rest of us don’t. Sure, you can find some lists that purport to be codes of ethics from journalism enterprises like the Society of Professional Journalists or the NY Times. But if you actually take the time to read them, you will see that they are completely useless in day-to-day newsroom decision-making, providing virtually no firm definitions of clear violations, other than obvious abuses like plagiarism and fabrications that any blogger concerned about his reputation and credibility would follow.

In fact, several ethical principles that many bloggers follow simply because they are decent human beings are frequently violated by the mainstream media. Let’s start with an obvious one — do not break the law. The NY Times is actually proud when it shares classified information. It defends its behavior not upon whether it may harm the country, but on the tautology that the public has a “right to know” — which is always conveniently whatever the Times wants to publish. Do nothing to encourage criminal behavior? Too bad that NBC didn’t have that ethical rule handy when they decided to show footage of the VA Tech sniper presenting himself as a heroic martyr. How about treat your news subjects as if they are innocent until proven guilty? Tell that to the Duke lacrosse team. Respect the privacy of the grieving? Here’s an article (see bottom paragraph) where the Times admits to being the first to tell an aunt, already grieving from the 9/11 death of her pilot brother, that her niece died, helpfully adding “She burst into tears on the phone and would not comment further.”

Admit, correct, and apologize for errors immediately and publicly? We’re still waiting for Dan Rather to come clean on the forged memo about President Bush’s service in the Texas National Guard. Courageously expose evil? CNN’s Eason Jordan admitted to covering-up Saddam Hussein’s atrocities to keep his Baghdad bureau open. And, that’s actually better than the NY Times’ Walter Duranty who, without remorse, accepted a Pulitzer Prize for stories that covered-up the millions of Ukranian lives snuffed-out by Stalin.

If Helen Thomas’ views on her industry’s ethical standards qualify her to be a Dean of Journalism, I would hate to meet its Pope. (H/T: Ed Driscoll, Michelle Malkin)


1. Craig McGill - 1/6/08

Steve, let’s play fair though: did ethics exist in the old days? After all, some of the best journalism has involved at least ‘bending’ of the laws justified by the ‘public interest’.

I think the real question should be what’s the distinction between what the ‘public interest’ is and ‘what the public are interested in’ and if journalists should push the limits of legality for what some would consider, quite frankly, tosh.

Would I condone law breaking regarding a criminal being exposed or some dodgy council/government dealing (short of entrapment)? Yes. Would I advocate breaking the law for some showbiz tale? No.

2. wendylbolm - 1/6/08

I think that, when used correctly, ethics are a very personal code that help reporters make decisions. I don’t think a strict ethical code for the entire profession of journalism would work, because ethics are personal and can be malleable.

Making ethical decisions is also very uncool, especially in Jschool. My decisions not to give other students answers to quizzes, read over copy carefully for factual and grammatical errors and my love for learning and philosophy (especially ethics) has made me somewhat unpopular with a number of students and ultra popular with the other students (a minority) who are serious about starting off their careers on the right track.

It makes me wonder what journalism will look like when the nation’s Jschools are finished graduating off current students.

3. Steve Boriss - 1/6/08

Craig, I do not believe journalists should be above the law. If a law is bad, they, like all citizens, have the right and duty to work to change it. I do acknowledge that here in America, our First Amendment is often misinterpreted so that some journalists think they have more rights than others, and I work to clear that up. For journalists who want to break laws I’d suggest that they don’t do the crime if they can’t do the time.

4. Steve Boriss - 1/6/08

Wendy, I applaud you for maintaining your sense of standards under pressure. But I’d ask you to consider this — is it really unworkable for journalism to accept responsibility for the common sense standards I’ve listed?: Do not break the law. Do nothing to encourage criminal behavior. Treat your news subjects as if they are innocent until proven guilty. Respect the privacy of the grieving. Admit, correct, and apologize for errors immediately and publicly. Courageously expose evil.

Based on your comment, I think you personally would hold yourself to those standards whether anyone told you to or not.

5. reuben - 2/27/08



I don’t know what this means but it sounds like an appropriate response to your “pish-posh” attitude and trifling regard for the law.

6. Lee Green - 5/29/08

Helen Thomas preaching about ethics?? The same Helen Thomas who never missed a chance to claim that the Palestinians were pacifists yearning for peace, and the Israelis were the war-mongers? Please, Thomas doesn’t have an objective, ethical bone in her body. Just because a reporter is old, doesn’t mean she’s wise.

7. Charlene Shelton - 1/8/09

good luck

8. Alphonso Doyle - 1/10/09

good luck

9. Right Angles » Blog Archive » The do-nothing duo: CNN and Obama - 6/14/09

[…] defense of their freedoms because he sees that coming in his own country?. Second, has CNN made the same kind of deal with Iran that it did with […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: