Roberts: Can’t Lose Sight of Journalistic Obligations

It is an honor for me to deliver
the Neal Shine lecture on ethics. Neal
was one of my favorite people. He
brightened the Detroit Free Press newsroom for decades with his wit and wisdom. He cared deeply about Detroit
and his newspaper. He worked tirelessly
to cover the news.

His enthusiasm and leadership could
be amazing. Once, when a huge fire was
raging in the middle of the night, he called staff member after staff member to
roust them from their beds. “Don’t comb
your hair,” he told one reporter. “Don’t wash your face. Just jump into your
pants. Then jump into your car. And get here.
Do not fool around.”

The reporter did just as Neal
directed. He jumped into his pants. He jumped into his car. He did not fool
around — even to open the garage door. He shattered the door and knocked the
garage off its foundations. But he got there.

The next Saturday, Neal borrowed
house jacks, recruited a gang of reporters and editors and put the garage back
on its foundations. He was ready for the next emergency.

For all his sense of fun, Neal was
serious about the news. He thought, as I do, that that companies that supply
our country with news have obligations to readers and viewers that set them
apart from other American corporations.

When we talk about ethics in
journalism, all too often the result is something like the Ten Commandments — a
listing of “thou shalt nots” rather than a discussion of our obligations in a
democratic society. It is, of course,
highly important to avoid conflicts of interest, misrepresentations and
untruths and to never print accusations against anyone without giving the
accused an opportunity to reply. But it
is possible to avoid all of these journalistic sins and, nevertheless, fail our
readers and our communities by not giving them the information they need
to be informed citizens in a democracy.
Any meaningful discussion of ethics has to start with our obligations,
duties and responsibilities to society.
Everything else flows from the basic premise that, yes, we do have
obligations.

And “discussions” as well as “obligations” are the operative words.
You cannot simply hand down a code of ethics in an organization or
newsroom and expect that you will have created an ethical climate. Those of us who have visited newsrooms with
ethical codes know that often you can find staff members who have never read
them.

Having high ethical standards is
an ongoing quest. It is creating a
climate in which journalists are constantly asking: What are we doing, who are we helping, who
are we hurting? That kind of
consciousness is difficult to instill at any time but especially in today’s
world of highly stressed news organizations.

Many newspapers, television stations and networks are operating in
what seems to be a permanent state of trauma.
Revenue is falling. And editors
and business executives are reeling. It
is hard to find time to talk about our responsibilities and our future — and the
long range interests of our news organizations and our communities — in what
seems a steadily downward economic spiral. And yet if we are ever to break out
of that spiral, talk of the future and our obligations and duties is not a
luxury or an indulgence. It is a
necessity.

Journalism schools, I am proud to
say, are giving more attention these days to ethics and standards. Today’s Neal Shine Lecture on Ethics here at Michigan
State University is just one manifestation of the trend. Many schools require students to take an
ethics course. And some of our best
schools infuse ethics into a variety of courses.

And codes of ethics are the norm
for most organizations of journalistic practitioners, such as the American
Society of Newspaper Editors
, The Society of Professional Journalists, The
Radio and Television News Directors
and the Associated Press Managing
Editors
. The National Association of
Black Journalists
and the National Press Photographers also have codes, as do
many other organizations of journalists.

You might argue that the
discussions journalists have in these organizations and in their newsrooms are
insufficient. But they are significantly
more than what occurs on the business side of newspapers and television and
within the professional organizations that represent these business
executives. And having journalists
discuss ethics and standards without the participation of business executives
is like tangoing without a partner. No
matter how expert, no matter how serious, half of the act is missing.

Business executives, of course, control the
money, and without firm commitments from these executives, journalists cannot
set meaningful standards on what they cover in a community and what they pass
on the readers in the news columns. And
there is also the question of treating readers fairly and without confusion by
clearly delineating news from advertising.
Again, it takes two to tango.

It is more important today than in
the past for key players on the business side to get exposure to discussions on
ethics and professional standards. Why?
The hierarchy of newspapers has changed dramatically in just a generation or
so. As recently as the 1950s and 60s, most daily newspapers were family-owned local institutions. There were good owners and bad owners in
terms of feeling a sense of public responsibility; but they were in overall
charge of both the newsroom and the business-side and usually had to give at
least some thought to the problems of each side. Usually, the owner had an editor to run the
newsroom and a general manager to head up the business operations. The owners could be absolute monarchs, but
found it in their interest to have a separation of church and state. Today, more than 80 percent of America’s
approximately l,500 dailies are owned by groups and chains. And the chief executives of these
organizations appoint publishers to run each local newspaper.

Increasingly, as profit pressures mount, these publishers
are far more likely to come out of accounting departments or advertising than
out of newsrooms, as was the case with Neal Shine when he became publisher of
the Detroit Free Press. And usually they
have authority over the editor, but without having nearly as much exposure
to the overall quandaries of publishing as the old local owners had.

As newspaper revenues fall, the
business executives cope with one financial emergency after another and make
little time, if any, for discussions about publishing ethics and standards. Almost no one seems to be grappling with the
fundamental questions of publishing and broadcast in a democratic society. What are a newspaper’s, or television
station’s, obligations to their community?
Does a newspaper have a societal duty to cover local government, state
government, schools, courts and the major social and political issues of the
day? What about foreign news and
national news?

For well over two decades
now, the overall trend line at newspapers is down in newsroom staff and in the
space devoted to news coverage. Obviously this has an impact on a newspaper’s
ability to collect the news and pass it on to the readers. Is there some point beyond which a publisher
will not cut? Is there any public
obligation at all, other than to public stockholders? Newspapers operate under unique
constitutional protections. Do these
protections obligate newspapers to make any sort of minimal commitments to news
coverage? None that America’s
publishers are willing to acknowledge through their professional
organizations.

Neither the Newspaper
Association of America
, which represents most dailies in the United States, or
the National Newspaper Association, which represents most weeklies and some family-owned
dailies, have ethical codes or any sort of written standards of professional
obligations. The National Funeral
Directors Association has a code of ethics.
So do airline pilots. And
interior designers. And
booksellers. And professional
organists. And professional hypnotists.
And wedding professionals. The fabric of
civilized society is not likely to unravel if a wedding is mishandled or if an
interior designer botches an apartment makeover. But if a newspaper fails to
properly cover local government or the public schools …?

A few years ago The Poynter
Institute tried four or five seminars on newspaper and television “values,”
believing that this word might have more appeal than “ethics” to business
executives. The seminars ranged from l2
to l6 participants, with half being key editors and the other half being
business executives. What was the
outcome?

“They talked the talk about serving their communities,” said James
Naughton
, former president of the Institute, “but they didn’t walk the walk.” He said the Institute found it difficult to
find executives willing to take part in the seminars and not much evidence that
the sessions were changing the executives’ behavior as policy makers. In the final analysis, he said, newspaper
executives believed media companies exist to make money and not to serve their
communities’ information needs if they get in the way of profit goals.
Naughton believes the failure of publishing executives to recognize a societal
obligation along with a profit obligation is the paramount ethical problem in
media.

Bill Kovach, chairman of the
Committee of Concerned Journalists, said his organization also tried a few
years ago to get newspaper business executives involved in discussions on
journalism standards and had limited success for a while. “But as pressure to
shore advertising revenue increases, business people have trouble getting their
heads around other problems,” Kovach said. “That’s understandable but
regrettable. The business they’re in is to supply information to a democratic
society. They’re selling the credibility
and value of what the newsroom produces.”

Regrettable to be sure. The pressures on newspapers today make the
publishing business a potential tinder box for ethical problems. The financial underpinnings of the business are
being shaken. Competitors are siphoning
off revenue that traditionally have gone to the newspapers. Executives lurch from one emergency meeting
to another, trying to stanch the revenue losses. Not only is there a dearth of discussions
about the need to supply democracy with information, but traditional barriers
between news and advertising are falling.
One paper allows an advertiser to sponsor a business column; another doesn’t label
advertising as prominently as it once did, increasing the chances that it will be
confused with news; and there is an increasing presence of advertorial — advertising consciously trying to pose as
news. Editors who once might have
objected now go along. They fear more
staff layoffs and budget reductions if advertising volume continues to fall.

But all of this pales in comparison
to what is happening on electronic news sites that are produced by
traditional newspaper and television companies.
You sometimes hit a key word that you think will lead to a news story,
and instead it leads you into advertising — sometimes without a clear
label. Some electronic news sites, in an
effort to increase Web viewers, invite open and often unedited participation, heedless
of all the ethical and legal problems this could cause.

“The idea that we should open up electronic
newspapers to anyone about anything is ludicrous,” says Bob
Steele
, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter institute. But yet it is
happening — out of fear that competing bloggers will siphon off viewers; or
because editing increases costs. “It is
the wild west out there,” Butch Ward, distinguished fellow at Poynter, said
of some of the newspaper Web sites.

All of this flies in the face of
more than 200 years of experience in print newspapers. Editors and publishers learned that allowing
readers to speak out in letters to the editor is a wonderful thing for both
readership and democracy. But they also
learned that unedited letters might well smear personal reputations or ethnic
groups with unproven charges.

This can
be legally, as well as ethically, dangerous to newspapers. And there certainly is no legal or ethical
immunity for Web sites. We are responsible for what we publish, whether in
print or on the Internet. The situation
cries out for ethical codes and professional standards. And while newsrooms sometimes have them, they
are rare among business and advertising executives.

We need codes. We need standards. But above all we need a sober assessment of
our obligations to supply the news and enough of it to ensure that our readers
can be knowledgeable participants in our democracies.
Our responsibilities to our readers and our communities should not go
into suspension each time newspaper companies fear that a current quarter’s
earning will fall below that of a year ago.

Yes, newspapers are having a bad year, the worst since the 2001
recession. Yes, Wall Street has hammered down the price of newspaper stocks.
Yes, it’s possible that newspaper profit margins may never return to their
heyday levels of 25 percent or more.
But some perspective is badly needed.
Profits in the first nine months of this bad year came in at l5.4 percent for publicly traded newspaper companies. And that is double the profit
average for Standard and Poor’s list of 500 companies. As recently as 2005, newspaper companies,
when measured by profit margins (l9 percent that year), were America’s
third-most profitable industry behind only banks and pharmaceuticals. Yet staff cutting is escalating in American
newsrooms.

You could put together a
sobering list of newspapers that have slashed their staffs by 10 or 20 percent
or more in the last three years. And for
some papers, the cuts are staggering when looked at cumulatively over a span of
years. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s staff is about half of what it was in 1990;
and the staff of The (San Jose, Calif.) Mercury News is half of what it was in 2000. The staff
cuts are even more demoralizing when you consider that many reporters are doing
double duty, filing for Web sites in addition to their print papers. This means they have less time to gather the
news. This means some news is going
uncovered.

Newsroom cuts have been severe
enough to be alarming in many cases, but some news organizations have strained
their credibility and ethical standing by saying they are actually making their
papers better — saying, in effect, that less is more. Steven A. Smith, editor of the
Spokesman Review in Spokane,
Wash., decided he wouldn’t play that game when he announced recently in his blog that
the newspaper’s staff would go down by eight to 12 positions next year. “None of us should hold any illusions
here,” he said to readers and his
newsroom. “A smaller staff means a
lesser paper. Doing more with less is corporate-speak BS and you will not hear
it from me.”

Of course, staff reductions reduce
a paper’s ability to cover the news. And
they raise the question of a paper’s obligations to its community. And this, in my strongly held view, is not
simply a rhetorical question. It is an
ethical question. It is a question of
standards. It should be discussed now — in
our newsrooms, in our business offices and with the public in public
forums. I thank you.

Related Posts

No related posts.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.