Red Light, Green Light: A Plea For Balance in Media Ethics

The funniest man I know happens to be an ethicist. This strikes me as odd. Fun and ethics makes as much sense as Julie Andrews singing “Satisfaction.” Can you imagine Aristotle cracking up at a joke Plato might have made about Oedipus? “Take my wife, I mean my mother – please!”


My Funny Ethicist is Arthur Caplan, one of the world’s most influential experts on issues in biomedicine. Most of what I know about ethics, I learned from Arthur (a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board). That includes the ability to lighten up now and again, to see hope and promise instead of agony and despair. As a whirlpool of news media scandals and controversies swirls around us, I find myself grasping on to the lifelines – the ropes of survival – that Arthur began spinning for me more than 20 years ago.


The first was this knowledge: Ethics springs from scandal. Too often, it takes disaster or tragedy to reform a system. How often do we see this in our everyday lives, those times when it takes a fatal car crash to get the city to put in a traffic light at a dangerous intersection? It took horrible scandals like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments to generate the rich field of biomedical ethics that exists today. It probably took the Enron scandal to introduce needed reforms into accounting practices. And, tragically, it may have taken the horrible sexual abuse scandals to move the Catholic Church toward needed reforms.


The Alpha event in the history of media ethics occurred almost 25 years ago. It was the publication of “Jimmy’s World” by The Washington Post — Reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer for her exposé about an 8-year-old boy addicted to heroin. It was all a fabrication. Cooke cooked up the story, shaming herself, her newspaper and her profession. The paper returned the Pulitzer. This single scandal did not invent the field of media ethics, but it certainly fertilized it. Articles, seminars, programs, journals, sprang up everywhere.


In 2005, no media controversy goes unexplored, a level of exposure radiated from media reporters, ethicists, bloggers, ombuddies, talk show hosts, and a small army of former journalists-turned-critics.


I made the case in 1990 that the 10 years after “Jimmy’s World” had created a Red Light ethic, an absolutely necessary but destructively insufficient method for achieving responsible journalism. A Red Light ethic, I argued:



  • Focuses on the misbehavior of the reporter.

  • Emphasizes caution and restraint.

  • Preaches adherence to rules and standards.

  • Sets limits on the behavior of journalists.

  • Keeps things out of print and off the air.

  • Prescribes what journalists “ought not” do.

  • Sees journalists as too aggressive.

  • Remembers vices and villains.

As I sniff the air outside my media cave this very day, I can smell scandal on the wind, troubling cases that lend themselves to the threadbare security of a Red Light ethic. The Mitch Albom case raises questions about whether sports journalists and columnists generally adhere to any standards of attribution and sourcing. The case of Diana Griego Erwin invites editors to put in place methods of quality control and prosecutorial editing that can detect fabrication. The case of the newspaper in Spokane, Washington has re-ignited the debate about whether reporters can use undercover methods to prove corruption in government. And now some say that rioting and death may be one result of a story published by Newsweek, a story using one anonymous source, a story which has now been retracted.


Collectively, these cases and controversies suggest a news media world that is ungoverned, out of control. Let’s rein it in, say some critics. One vehicle for that restraint is Red Light ethics.


So what would a Green Light ethic look like?


It is embodied by a recent message that my old friend Steve Lovelady sent to Romenesko in defense of the editors in Spokane. Steve, a former top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, is now managing editor of CJR Daily. Here’s what he had to say:



The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review’s piece on Mayor Jim West is public service journalism at its best, and editor Steve Smith is to be commended. As for the supposed ethical issues raised by the alarmed chin-strokers in our midst — so what if, as reported by Editor & Publisher, the current editors in Philadelphia, Indianapolis and elsewhere piously declare that they wouldn’t have taken the measures that Smith took to make his story airtight? All that tells me is that if Jim West, or any other Internet predator, was mayor of Philadelphia or Indianapolis, he’d probably be home free.


What exactly is Steve Smith supposed to be guilty of? Having the prudence and caution to hire an expert to ascertain the mayor’s online identity before the Spokesman-Review went into print? Where I come from, we don’t call that entrapment; we call it responsible journalism…


…I’m not surprised that by a count of 12-to-1, a grateful public is responding to the Spokesman-Review’s investigation. What’s dismaying is that Smith isn’t getting similar support from his colleagues at more timid publications.


From years of editing investigative stories in Philadelphia, Lovelady has developed a reflex toward Green Light ethics. Contrast this gung-ho attitude to the caution expressed by my Poynter colleague Aly Colón: “I think it’s a risk,” he told The Seattle Times, “to ask people to believe you’re telling the truth when you’re engaging in a fictional approach.” The threshold for going undercover, he argued, “has to be very high.”


It is this expression of, say, Amber Light ethics that led to a denunciation of Poynter on Romenesko by Bob Laurence, television critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune. “I wonder how many great stories have been killed by wishy-washy editors who call Poynter before publishing?” Laurence counters that the editors and reporters in Spokane practiced “enterprising journalism. The paper strengthened its position in the community, gave folks in Spokane a powerful reason for feeling they need to read their hometown paper.” The moral, he says: “Don’t call Poynter. Publish and be damned. No guts, no glory.”


Ethics springs from scandal.Laurence’s attack on Poynter – this Taj Mahal of Know-It-All – was rebutted by Eric Deggans (who works at the St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by Poynter). But it also invites some analysis here. 

I spend most of my phone time with editors and publishers offering free advice on how to get stories IN the paper or on the air. The same is true, I dare say, for my colleagues, especially those who offer advice on news judgment, reporting, and ethical standards.

Kelly McBride, for example, may be opposed to naming rape victims against their wishes, and that may seem Red Light in its restraint. But I’ve heard Kelly make the case a dozen times that sexual abuse is an under-reported problem in American journalism, offering facts, frames, and resources for telling the untold story: that the victims of sexual abuse in America are more likely to be children than adults, and that they are more likely to be abused by relatives or friends than by strangers. Kelly is not saying to journalists “Stop, stop, stop,” but “Go, go, go.”


That said, there is, even in the published-and-be-damned fulminations of a Bob Laurence, and the old school prescriptions of a Steve Lovelady, the seeds of a well-developed argument in favor of Green Light ethics. What would such an approach look like?  Green Light ethics would:



  • Emphasize power and duty, over caution and restraint.

  • Consider “how to” rather than “ought not.”

  • Focus on opportunities rather than limits.

  • Pay more attention to virtues and heroes than to vices and villains.

  • Use ingenuity and craft to get things in rather than keep things out.

  • View American journalism as too timid rather than too aggressive.

But surely a story like the Newsweek debacle lends itself to Red Light remediation.
   
Monday morning I heard Jonathan Alter of Newsweek make a case for the kind of reporting that resulted in a poorly sourced story that may have led to the loss of life. The world of journalism, he argued in a radio interview, has just a few news organizations willing to delve into the world of government secrets. Do we want to live in a world where all of our information is spoon-fed to us by those in power? Or do we need journalists to take serious risks to find out what we need to know? He was making, I would argue, a Green Light case, even for a story the possible consequences of which required higher standards of verification.


Red Light says: Let’s back off. Green Light says: Let’s pin it down.  


Here’s what I wrote in 1990: “These distinctions go beyond semantics although we should not underestimate the effect on students and professionals when we shift from Red Light imperatives to Green Light ones, from negative words to positive ones. Red Light language says: Don’t invade privacy; don’t sensationalize; don’t exploit; don’t lie; don’t re-victimize. Green Light language says: tell the truth; inform the public; reveal social ills; preserve human dignity; be brave.”


Language, we know, reflects reality, but also helps define it. The words we choose will determine how journalists and the public see the world ethically. If we define media ethics only in terms of scandal, we risk creating a journalism world where there is no risk and no joy. Even in the act of policing ourselves, we run the risk of turning the newsroom into a police state. Every single journalistic scandal we report casts dark clouds over a hundred journalistic achievements, stories of courage and enterprise, stories that change communities for the better. Judging our work in those green terms might just restore our sense of passion and purpose. It might just put some of the fun back into journalism — and brighten the solemnity of media ethics.

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