March 26, 2004

The names of news organizations making headlines because of ethical issues seem unending. The Blair/Bragg bombshell at The New York Times wasn’t the beginning of this trend. And the revelations of Jack Kelley at USA Today won’t be the end of it.

In the past months, a pattern became obvious. One news organization after another identified and then addressed an ethical concern. They ranged from plagiarism and fabrication to conflicts of interest and deception.

Some took swift action. Others engaged in long investigations. But no sooner did one problem appear solved at one place when another occurred somewhere else.

The constancy of these revelations, and journalism’s reaction to them, reminds me of an arcade game I’ve watched my daughter play. It involves a flat surface with many openings and a rubber mallet. She slips in a token and green heads pop up constantly and randomly. She hammers them back into their holes. But they keep popping back up. So she slaps them down again. And the cycle continues.

I see the same thing happening in journalism when it comes to ethical situations. Problems pop up. We hammer them. And the cycle continues.

What, if anything, can be done to break the cycle?

First we need to understand the cycle we’re in. We assume we know what’s right. We become aware of someone doing something wrong. We punish the wrongdoer. We reaffirm our desire to do the right thing.

The cycle includes elements of rules, rights, wrongs and punishments. We view all this from a punitive perspective. Do the right thing or pay the consequences.

Too often, it seems, we operate out of fear. Fear of doing the wrong thing. Fear of not measuring up.  Eric Deggans, who writes about the media for the St. Petersburg Times and is a Poynter Ethics Fellow, examines the impact of this fear factor in an excellent column he wrote about why the Jayson Blair affair haunts journalists.

In that piece, he notes that fear is part of the fuel that powers our daily work. And among the fears he highlights is the fear of losing our credibility.

Fear motivates us. It also distracts and drains us. It takes a lot of energy to hammer all those problems back into their holes.

Maybe we need to reframe the way we look at ethical issues. Instead of living in fear that we might commit an ethical transgression, maybe we could focus on creating an environment that encourages ethical behavior.

Could fear give way to faith? A faith in what we can aspire to as journalists. A faith that the principles we hold on to will also hold us accountable. A faith in our readers, viewers, listeners, and users to be people who know we’re not perfect but are constantly in the process of perfecting our craft.

I’m not suggesting we accept what we do with an unconditional faith. Rather, I’d like us to act on the basis of good faith. We’re skeptical not because we don’t believe but because we want to understand what we’re being asked to believe. We ask questions not out of distrust but because we want better answers. We examine conflicts of interests because of our interest in excellent journalism.

Instead of seeking software that can identify plagiarism, why not use software and training that create ethical decision-making models that identify multiple options for getting it right? Why not admit we’re not automatons with no feelings or biases, but human beings striving to be fair?

Carlos Sanchez, editor of the Waco Tribune and another Poynter Ethics Fellow, played it straight with his readers in a recent column he wrote debunking the myth of objectivity. He admitted journalists have opinions and biases. He also informed his readers his journalists could be fair. In writing the column, Sanchez showed faith in his journalists and in his readers.

The transparency demonstrated by Deggans and Sanchez about how journalism works, and how it can work well, exhibits the faith they have in themselves, in their work, and in journalism.

Their approach may represent an effort that helps usher in a new trend, one that lessens our fears of failure and increases our faith in journalism.

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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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