August 15, 2002

When an organization — any type of organization — doesn’t internalize what it says it stands for, things can go wrong. No written code of ethics, no matter how well intentioned and insightfully crafted, can work if there is an obvious gap between what an organization says it will and won’t do and what, when push comes to shove, it actually does.

It’s not likely that people set out to write codes they don’t intend to follow. But pressures from a number of sources can make things go awry.

A “Poorly-Aligned Realm”

Journalism is no exception to such disconnections between what we say we stand for and how we practice our craft. Witness some of the high-profile blows journalism has taken in recent years.

In 1998, after Patricia Smith, a highly regarded Metro columnist for The Boston Globe, admitted to fabricating characters and quotes, she was fired. Two months later, another of its Metro columnists, Mike Barnicle, resigned after he couldn’t verify facts in a 1995 column he’d written. At the time of his resignation, Barnicle had been suspended for lifting jokes from a book by George Carlin.

June 1998 also marked the month that the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a banner headline apologizing to Chiquita Brands International for the expose it had run on the company. The apology accompanied a $14 million out-of-court settlement the paper paid the company after it was discovered that the lead reporter, Michael Gallagher, had illegally hacked into Chiquita’s voicemail system.

On Oct. 10 the following year, the Los Angeles Times published a special magazine on the newly finished Staples Center sports complex without disclosing that it was sharing revenues from the magazine with the Center. The deal was widely viewed as the end result of then CEO Mark Willes’s attempts to break down the wall between the editorial and advertising divisions of the newspaper. Editor-in-chief Michael Parks and publisher Kathryn Downing were roundly criticized for the deal that many feel led to the ultimate sale of the newspaper in March 2000.

What gives?

It’s not that journalists and newspaper executives at the organizations involved weren’t aware that making things up, failing to reveal conflicts of interest, “borrowing” from other writers without citing them, or hacking into voicemail crossed ethical and, in some cases, legal lines. It’s also not that the organizations for which these employees worked didn’t have codes of ethics in place.

At Gannett, the parent company of the Cincinnati Enquirer, for example, there was not only a newsroom code of ethics, but also a corporate code of ethics that, according to the company’s public affairs director, every employee has been required to read and sign every year. Granted, Gannett’s corporate code of ethics weighs in at a mere two pages vs. the eight pages for the newly crafted “Principles of Ethics Conduct for Newsrooms” that was created in 1999, in the wake of the Chiquita affair, to govern the 98 daily newspapers Gannett now owns. (In addition to the eight-page Principles that cover the newsroom, the two-page code still goes to every Gannett employee including those in the newsroom for a signature every year.)

But this ambitious code “was not widely different from codes and standards other professional organizations have advocated for years,” said Frank Sutherland, editor of The Tennessean, a Gannett-owned daily. (USA Today is not covered by this policy, but has its own, which employees are required to sign every year.)

So if the principles of ethical conduct are known and, indeed, written codes have been implemented, why the severe lapses? The challenge for newspapers, other media, and all organizations is to make sure that codes of ethics have not only been implemented, but also that they’re internalized throughout the organization. It’s one thing to put the ideas on paper, quite another to make sure that employees at every level of the organization believe that top management practice what the codes preach.

In their book, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic Books, 2001), authors Howard Gardner, Mihily Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon acknowledged that “every practitioner aspires to work in a well-aligned domain — that is, one in which personal aspirations are consistent with the enduring values of the domain, the current roles and institutions in the field, and the interests of various other stakeholders.” Journalism, they observed, “currently stands as a poorly aligned realm.”

The authors stop short of drawing conclusions, but it’s not hard for those in the industry to imagine the possibilities.

Pressures for Bottom-line Performance

One of the more prominent possibilities for the disconnect between stated intentions and actual actions may be the increasing pressure for bottom-line profitability on newspapers throughout the country.

Geneva Overholser, a syndicated columnist who was editor of The Des Moines Register from 1988 to 1995, said that “there is a great deal of tension between the long-stated and much-cherished notion that newspapers are not just another business, but are a business with a particular responsibility to society.” While “CEOs of even the most profitable newspaper companies espouse this view,” she said, it’s “the increasingly evident truth that the bottom line is determining more and more about what happens in the newspaper companies.”

If employees in the newsroom get a clear message that their paper is being run with a far greater eye on the needs of the advertisers than those of the readers (since advertisers are footing the bulk of the publishing bill), no code of ethics — however well crafted — is likely to be able to withstand the pressure. Some employees — granted, those who have a less firmly ingrained ethical governor — may take this as their go-ahead to get the story or cut the deal in the interest of moving more papers and drawing in more readers, which in turn will attract more advertisers, ethics be damned.

A troubling, perhaps ironic, aspect of a few people at the top not following their own set of rules for behavior is that it can cause those employees who see the value of the code to behave in ways that directly and adversely affect the long-term financial performance of the company.

The results of the first KPMG Organizational Integrity survey that were released in the summer of 2000, found that employees’ perception of management’s behavior can have a dramatic effect on how the company gets perceived by prospective customers and employees. Overall, 69 percent of the 2300 employees of the many firms surveyed believed that their current customers would recommend their company to others. Among those who believed that management would uphold the company’s ethical standards, that number shot up to 80 percent. It fell by half, to 40 percent, among employees who believed that management would turn a blind eye to improper behavior. The differences when it comes to recruiting word-of-mouth are staggering. More than 66 percent of employees would recommend their company to recruits. Among those who believe management would walk the ethical line, the number of recommenders increased to 81 percent. But among those who believed their bosses to be more ethically flexible, only 21 percent would recommend their company.

Walking the Talk Throughout the Organization

But the drive to meet financial goals is not the only reason for ethical lapses in news organizations. Sometimes the reason comes down to the necessity of following the old saw of walking the talk, but also making sure that employees throughout the organization walk the talk as well.

Crafting a strong code of ethics is a start. But to work, there needs to be some mechanism to ensure that employees from the top of the organization on down have internalized the code.

In the wake of the column fabrications by Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith in 1998, Boston Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas wrote that editor Matthew Storin had explained to his staff that both columnists had been told in 1996, two years before the incidents that led to their departures, that “their columns would henceforth be examined vigorously for fabrications.” Clearly, those examinations weren’t vigorous enough to flag potential problems before they made it into print.

Thomas bemoaned the fact that any editor should have to feel “compelled to remind columnists that they are not allowed to write falsely, that they are obliged to write the truth.”

He’s absolutely right, of course. But what message did it send to the rest of the staff at the Globe that the editors had set in place a system to hold its columnists accountable without giving it enough teeth to succeed? Viola Osgood, a retired editorial writer for the paper, said what other employees might have been feeling at the time: “I don’t think the Globe should have asked for Patricia Smith’s resignation. I think the Globe should have fired her.”

At the Los Angeles Times, CEO Mark Willes’s enthusiasm for and commitment to breaking down the walls between advertising and editorial were widely known. A relationship with the Staples Center to produce a special magazine may have seemed to make perfect business sense. It was only after the revenue-sharing relationship was disclosed by outside press that the Times began to acknowledge that it may have overstepped an ethical line that is drawn to ensure that editors and writers can perform their jobs without the public thinking that their work has been influenced by an advertiser’s dollars.

When employees sense a lack of consequences to ethical breaches, it’s possible that they get the message that behavior that goes against the code of ethics is acceptable. Or at least that it’s acceptable until the behavior becomes more widely publicized outside the organization and the reaction only comes too late in an effort to save face. When employees catch on that there’s no spine to an organizations’ code of ethics, credibility suffers.

Of course, a practical step toward internalizing any code of ethics might be to make sure that employees know where to find the code. Three years after the Barnicle and Smith departures, a seasoned editor at The Boston Globe acknowledged, “it probably is not good that I can’t find one quickly.”

Desire to Do Right

Certainly, we’d like to think that most people within news or any organizations have the intention to do what’s right. What they need are mechanisms that give them the ability to do what’s right.

The solution to the ethical lapses is not to sit down and write a bang-up code of ethics. That’s merely a good start. But to make those codes work, organizations need to find ways to internalize these codes. They need to pay more attention to building training around case studies, to staging regular conversations among employees and management, to having leaders in the organization model ethical behavior, to exploring different learning processes that give people within the organization the capacity for doing the right thing. The exact mechanisms don’t matter as long as the end result is a reinforcement of what the organization stands for, and as long as whatever mechanisms are put in place are actually used.

Only after codes are internalized and made credible by executives’ actions can they be expected to work in journalism or in any business. Such internalization might make journalism a better-aligned realm and lead to better performance by employees who share in and believe the vision of the organization.

As the KPMG study suggested, employees are loath to see their organizations as good places to lure others to work at if they don’t think management’s actions are consistent with their stated code of ethics. If that consistency exists, then employees are more likely to encourage others to come work with them.

The end result may be an organization of dedicated and motivated employees who want to grow the place by attracting other talented individuals to join and add their own talent to the mix.

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