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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox



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Thursday, February 7, 2013
Ethics Toolbox

Biggest challenge: our ethical foundations

By Kevin Z. Smith

As far as single questions go, it was the perfect one to ask when you're writing one of those end-of-year, 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. We achieve this by returning to our ethical foundation, the keystones of which are truth, fairness, sensitivity and accountability.

Borrowing from SPJ's Ethics Code, I think we can accomplish this challenge in a few ethical steps.

Testing the accuracy of information and verifying facts before reporting can never fall below the highest of standards for our profession. Validate information before reporting it.

Diligently seek subjects who can help provide balanced reporting. It shows a commitment to fairness and honesty that getting it "whole" goes a long way toward getting it "right."

The public has a right to know your sources, and reporters need to challenge sources' motives. Anonymous sourcing has become epidemic. Granting anonymity used to be reserved for the direst of situations. Now, it's so commonplace, it's devalued the real purpose of its use. It hasn't the value or standing it once did.

Break the shameless cycle of stealing thoughts and words from others. This is inexcusable.

We must return to an understanding that we cause harm in what we do. And sometimes that is a noble intention. But, more often, we create harm without any consideration to those who are affected. We treat grieving people and victims of crimes and disasters as a means to an end. We must stop imposing our will and return to a level of compassion that marks us as ethical people.

We have to remain independent and free of association. We cannot serve two masters, and the public interest is a jealous master who has been cheated time and time again by the lure of personal gain, special interest favors and hidden agendas.

We have to accept responsibility for our actions and inactions. We have to invite responsible dialogue and hold ourselves to the same high standards that we hold others.

Last, we can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the ethical lapses of our profession. It is on all of our shoulders to be ethically proactive and to speak out.

This challenge belongs to us all.

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Quill
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