October 31, 2003

At Poynter, any conversation about ethics owes much to Bob Steele. His reflective and reasoned voice helps or haunts journalists confronted and conflicted by ethical issues.  

This column, “Talk About Ethics,” exists because Bob envisioned it as another vehicle to help journalists navigate the landmines and potholes encountered in providing excellent news coverage.  
Now Bob has embarked on a new journey at Poynter, exploring and explaining journalism values.  As his successor in writing this column, I intend to continue examining the ethical issues we face as journalists.

I also hope to show that practicing your craft without an ethical decision-making process is like reporting without an editing process and editing without a reporting process.

Before I begin doing so, however, I think it might be helpful to explain where I’m coming from. One way to do that is to let you know about a session I teach: “Ethics in the Time of Cholera.”

Fans of journalist and novelist Gabriel García Márquez will recognize my homage to him in the title. Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Time of Cholera” stand out as only two of the many novels he has written while also continuing to commit journalism.

In his journalism, García Márquez gathers fascinating facts and paints vivid pictures. His fiction blends reality and fantasy so seamlessly it can be difficult to know which is which. He shows how the complexity of truth often escapes the facts.

By naming a session that plays off “Love in the Time of Cholera,” I saw a way to convey the complexity of the world in which we must make decisions. Like his stories, ethical decision-making involves dealing with layers within layers. It requires a peeling process that can be as painful as it is revealing.

Separating truth from fiction, truth from truth, fiction from facts takes time and effort. But it can be done effectively prior to deadline, and on deadline, if we have a process that identifies what we believe, why we believe it, and how we want to implement it.

I believe our ethical mission involves doing the right thing for the right reason.

The word “ethics” originates with the ancient Greeks. They saw it as referring to character, and what it took to have good or bad character. Therefore, the foundation of ethical decision-making involves good and bad options.

The ethical decision-making process helps us discard bad options and choose among the good ones. It helps us seek the best option from a number of alternatives for the particular ethical quandary we face.

Finally, we must not separate ethics from journalism. Excellent journalism requires ethical behavior. And ethical behavior takes into account all the people and perspectives affected by our decisions.

Engaging in ethical discussions is not a just a mental exercise. It also is a craft exercise. Acting ethically enhances our craft. In fact, it is as integral to our craft as reporting, writing, editing, designing, getting a photo, copyediting, and all the other skills we use.

They are all connected. Bob uses a diamond-shaped illustration when he teaches that shows Journalism tied to Ethical Decision-Making tied to Ethics tied to Reporting (or other journalistic skills). I fill in that diamond with the word CRAFT. I use large, uppercase letters, making sure each letter of the word touches the lines that form the diamond.

Ethical decision-making … requires a peeling process that can be as painful as it is revealing.

I do that to emphasize ethics as a craft. The ethical decision-making tool helps us report more thoroughly, write more clearly and accurately, edit more cogently, photograph with a sharper focus, and design with more details.

Let me give you example. One of the ethical questions we use asks us to identify the stakeholders affected by our actions. By listing the stakeholders, we also serve a craft purpose: we explore who we might interview to tell the whole story.

If we were to do a story about the high cost retirees pay for prescription drugs, for example, some of the stakeholders might include: retirees, U.S. drug companies, Canadian drug companies, websites selling drugs, insurance companies, local doctors, children of the retirees, the reporter, the news media, alternative medicine users, etc.

The list of those affected, and those we might want to interview, could go on and on. The more sources we find, the more complete a story we offer. And the more we learn about other stories we might tell.

In upcoming columns, I hope to show how such ethical thinking makes us better able to do what we want to do: engage in credible, aggressive, and compelling journalism.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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