Here's an Idea: Apply the Journalistic Ethics Code

In the wake of the Shirley Sherrod incident and what it exposed about the deteriorating state of contemporary journalism, Jonathan Bernstein, the editor of an Internet-based crisis management newsletter called "Crisis Manager," is proposing that the journalistic and news-consuming community fight back against the lagging quality of journalism in the U.S. by utilizing a tool that has largely fallen by the wayside in contemporary reporting: the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. Bernstein cites the round-the-clock demand for news, fewer reporters due to falling ad revenue and the growing popularity of sensationalism in news as exacerbating the declining quality of news reporting in the U.S. He urges news consumers to hold news producers accountable for adhering to the journalistic Code of Ethics to ensure the quality of their reporting. The Code outlines proper behavior for journalists. Its four main tenets are, "seek truth and report it, "minimize harm," "act independently" and "be accountable" for what you write. Bernstein maintains that adhering to the Journalists' Code of Ethics can help minimize or avoid or the damage caused by irresponsible news reporting.


Media is a business. Businesses are in business to stay in business. To stay in business, you have to sell a product that your customers want. The media gives the public (customers) what we want...ENTERTAINMENT.

For those who may long for 'the good old days', Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow were no different. If they did not produce something that sold, they would have found themselves looking for other employment.

What has changed is us. We ALL need to look in the mirror and take personal responsibility instead of trying to impose it on others. Be an individual and stand for your beliefs!

BTW, all the networks carried the story with the same slant, so don't think 'your network' did a better job than 'their' network on this one.

You're wrong.

In the days of Cronkite, Murrow, and others of that era, news departments were neither expected nor required to make a profit. In fact, they were fully expected to run at a loss, the revenue being made up in the entertainment programming that followed, which is why CBS led the ratings in the post-news time slot every year that Cronkite was anchor (look it up).

News was considered a public service -- which it is and should be -- and it was conducted in that way. Reporters were not allowed to endorse products or receive gratiuties. Even so much as a box of candy given by a company or individual on which the reporter had done a story was frowned upon.

It wasn't until 60 Minutes burst into Prime Time that networks began to see that news could be entertainment and, therefore, expected to make a profit. And it is that event that marked the beginning of the downfall of journalism and the rise of the Rupert Murdocks and Fox News of the world.

Look at what kind of Reporters WCTI 12 is hiring,
they are terrible. Inexperienced, probably plagerized in College.
WCTI is terrible...

I grew up in a newspaper family, and my first three jobs were for newspapers. For 12 years, I was very proud to call myself a journalist. However, in the early 90s, I saw where the craft was going and I simply could not bring myself to become what passes for a journalist today.

Just because there are fewer reporters and there is a thirst for constant news, it does not follow that we throw out the ethics book and scramble willy-nilly for every scrap of information we can scrape out of the gutter. In fact, it demands that we hold higher due dilligence and take greater care to see that our sacrosanct duty to The Public is done.

But a major problem is that the journalistic ethics of which we speak is, quite honestly, rarely taught anymore. Just as the proper use of the language and silly things like grammar and syntax and spelling, ethics simply has no place in today's journalism courses. It's all about how to make the story "lively" and how to "control the interview."

Personally, I never wanted to control the interview; I preferred to go in with a short list of questions and, during the interview, develop those lines further, letting the source -- who, unlike today's "media stars," was the actual expert -- tell me what the story was about. That way, I could go back to my desk and write the story so that a person who never heard of the subject before would walk away knowing as much as I could fit into the hole.

As for agenda -- the only agenda a true journalist needs was put very accurately in the old Dragnet series: "Just the facts, ma'am; just the facts."

As I write this, I remember that Daniel Schoor died last week and with him perhaps the very last of what I call the "true Journalists."

It's a sad, sad time for those of us who cherish what was once a noble, if unappreciated, craft. How far it has fallen.

Appreciate my article being mentioned, and I agree with a number of the comments. I refer to the phenomenon of the past couple of decades as the "National Enquirization of America." I once heard the guy who originally owned The National Enquirer, Generoso Pope, explaining that the purpose of the paper was "to entertain and inform, in that order, and if we can't entertain we're not interested in informing."

I hate to tell you this, Jonathan, but the SPJ Code of Ethics isn't worth much more than the paper it's printed on. Or the web page it's posted on. Here's the deal. I live in Indiana. The SPJ is HQ'd in Indy. (Been there, sat in their meeting room.) Its origin was at Depauw U in Greencastle, IN. It hasn't strayed far from its roots. The impression I've gotten from my several frustrating and perplexing experiences with the SPJ is that they're basically a frat. A mutual aid, self-esteem, and back-patting society. Had they desired to evolve beyond that, they'd probably be HQ'd in Manhattan, not Indianapolis. Here in the backwater, they can kick back, collect dues, organize conferences, and do their normal low-key intra-profession stuff that keeps them all feeling legit.

Having some background in the field myself, I've tried, on at least three occasions in recent years, to get the SPJ to put their money where their Ethics Code is and actually enforce the darn thing. Which they have provisions for doing. They simply refuse. Which they can do by ignoring complaints to begin with. Press them hard on it, and you'll be told that there's no actual force behind the code, it's just a set of guidelines. In fact, they have an Ethics Committee, which can "shame" a fellow journalist in response to a "public concern." Apparently that's a very, very rare occurrence. Their board can also give a member the boot. I wonder if that's ever happened? As Mrs. Slocombe of the old BritCom series "Are You Being Served" said: "Weak as water!"

Given all of that, will your suggestions on shaming media types with the Code of Ethics actually work? If it's a concerted effort on the part of other professionals: Maybe. Generally speaking, the Code is a good basis for media criticism, as you also suggest. But getting down to your 4 action steps, I must report that I've had no success whatsoever by flogging local media with the Code. That's working as an individual, even on behalf of a rather complacent local citizenry. If you have money and a posse backing you up, you'll do better. I'm just saying that invoking the SPJ and their Code of Ethics isn't necessarily going to elicit fear and remorse from some crappy journalist or news outlet.

Unfortunately, I believe this is a problem across the board, weather it be journalist in the media or a board member for some large corporation, society has become very greedy!

They all claim to follow some code of ethics, but it is a code of ethics of convenience. As long as they are making money and the ethics can be adhered to, everything is great. However, as soon as margins and profits become sluggish so do their adherence to their precious code of ethics!

To me, it has become a sad state of affair!