August 1, 2005

Sometimes I feel journalists work in a
reform-minded, ethical environment that seems as efficient at dealing
with ethical lapses as the French state was with political lapses
during its 18th century revolution. In both cases,
transgressors faced immediate consequences. For today’s journalist, it
may mean abiding by the new rules or face the employment guillotine.

An increasing number of news organizations today waste little time
with journalists who fail to follow their ethical codes or rules. An
infraction often brings termination. And there seems to be few
second chances. The Miami Herald last week fired
Jim DeFede, a popular columnist. It did so the same day he
admitted taping a phone call from a distraught Miami politician, Arthur
E. Teele Jr., who committed suicide that day. Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler acknowledged in a Sunday column
that the decision to fire DeFede was “perplexing” to many readers and
colleagues. But he insisted that any lesser punishment would send
a message that the paper tolerates breaches of its trust with readers.

(Taping someone on the phone requires the consent of the other party
in Florida. DeFede didn’t obtain Teele’s permission, a violation
of what Fiedler described as the Herald’s obligation to “act without
hidden motives or practices.” Fiedler said exceptions might be
made, depending on the circumstances, but indicated that the
DeFede-Teele conversation was not considered one of those
“extraordinary cases”.)

A few months ago USA Today pressured its Pentagon reporter, Tom Squiteri, to resign. The paper did so because it found that Squitieri used quotes first published in another paper without attribution.

…news organizations ignore ethical transgressions at their peril.

In both situations, a number of journalists, and some among the
public, wondered why the reaction was so swift and so severe. In both
instances, the news managers pointed to their ethics requirements and
the need to maintain their newspaper’s credibility with their readers.

Their reasoning seems sound.

With an unrelenting parade of journalistic ethical embarrassments, highlighted two years ago by Jayson Blair at The New York Times and later by Jack Kelley at USA Today,
news organizations ignore ethical transgressions at their peril. And
with the public trust of today’s news media plummeting, it makes sense
for news managers to establish ethical standards and abide by them.

I care about ethical behavior. I see the need for more ethical
training. I teach journalists how to use the ethical-decision making
process. Yet, I feel troubled. I wonder about the impact and
implementation of ethical requirements under such strictness. I have
questions about the outcome that may follow.

Could zero tolerance to ethical lapses result in an increase in
righteousness, but not an increase in credibility? Could swift,
immediate dismissals get rid of the transgressor, but not the problem?
Could rules tell journalists what they shouldn’t do, but not what they
can do, or why they do it, and how they can do it ethically?

Are there no second chances?

In some cases there are. After Detroit Free Press
sports columnist Mitch Albom included an event that didn’t occur in his
column, the newspaper did a thorough review of his work. The Free Press
decided Albom’s long-standing stellar career, and the lack of any other
similar transgressions, merited keeping him on the newspaper’s staff.
And I’m sure there have been others as well.

But what happens when management decides against a second chance?

Will we lose good journalists who might have learned an ethical
lesson? And will our newsrooms be filled with journalists so afraid of
committing an ethical miscue that they fail to engage in aggressive and ethical journalism?

These questions are not new. I’ve written about the problem
of just dealing with the cycle of repeated ethical lapses
before. Punishing the transgressor is one thing. But usually, it’s
just one thing. No more. As I noted in that earlier column, we need to
move from a fear of doing something wrong to a faith in our ability to
do what our profession calls us to do.

Could zero tolerance of ethical lapses result in an increase in righteousness, but not an increase in credibility?What
I want to emphasize here goes beyond ethics codes. I believe such codes
serve a good purpose. They provide a valuable foundation for any news
organization.

But I want us to go beyond the codes, beyond the words. The words
should simply be the external representation of an internal ethical
spirit. So when we think about how we address ethical lapses, we should
do so from a holistic view—one that seeks to make individuals and the
profession whole.

The public knows journalists aren’t perfect. Much of their distrust
stems from years of journalistic arrogance that rarely acknowledged
mistakes. And too much of the public still remains ignorant about how
journalism operates.

The question of what to do with those journalists who violate the
ethics we cherish remains difficult to answer. What news organizations
can do when they learn about a transgression is to consider both the
individual and the organization in their decision-making process. Here
are some questions to ask:

· How informed was the individual who violated an ethical principle of the news organization’s ethics guidelines or code?

· How well did that individual understand the ethical implications of his or her actions?

· How willing is that individual to accept responsibility and training in ethical decision-making?

· How well does the staff as a whole know what the ethics guidelines are?

· How well has the staff internalized the ethics principles so they
become a natural part of the reporting, writing, editing and visual
process?

· How often does each staff member have the opportunity to practice
ethical-decision making skills so they can be ready when faced with
ethical challenges?

There have been times, and there will be times in the future, when,
after all those questions, the dismissal of a journalist for an ethical
lapse may be necessary.

But there may be other times when the journalist may learn from the
mistake and have the opportunity to implement what he or she has
learned in future work. And the news organization itself may learn
something from addressing the individual, as well as the process.

Code Enforcement can help guide us ethically and send the right
message to the audience. But it takes a newsroom committed to actively
discussing ethical issues to keep the public’s trust.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article reported an incorrect time frame for the French revolution.

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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…
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