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When a Reporter Makes Up News, Journalists Label It a Breach of Ethics,
So Why Not When the Entire Industry Ducks a Significant Story?

By Theodore L. Glasser

Add Jayson Blair to the cast of characters whose misconduct illustrates in the extreme what happens when reporters lack integrity and editors fail in their role as supervisors. But add his saga as well to the catalog of newsroom scandals, like Janet Cooke’s famous fabrication at the Washington Post in 1980, that delimits the domain of ethics by focusing our attention on individuals, usually reporters but sometimes managers, and the obviously wrong course of action they took.

In what it unabashedly called the “real story of Jayson Blair,” Newsweek took us “behind the scandal” and into Blair’s “secret life,” an “exclusive” cover story about what happens when an “ambitious reporter with a troubled relationship to the truth meets an aggressive editor eager to mint new stars.” A breach of ethics in this instance amounted to a bad mix of personalities: A deceitful and dangerously ambitious reporter with a penchant for “trafficking in nasty gossip, stealing story ideas and sucking up to superiors” and a “swaggering, smooth-talking Southerner” with a “fondness for anointing young reporters as future stars” (editor Howell Raines) ended up on a “collision course – which destroyed one man’s career, seriously sullied the other’s and severely tarnished the reputation of an American institution in the process.”

Newsweek’s coverage of Blair and his superiors at The New York Times, along with accounts that appeared just about everywhere else, serve well to mark the kind of activity for which journalism will agreeably hold itself publicly accountable: individual and even institutional violations of newsroom norms. But these stories also stake out a set of questions to which journalists rarely respond, namely, questions about why journalism embraces certain norms (“oughts”) and not others.

Newsroom norms, defined internally and paraded out to the public when the need arises, seldom receive the critical, sustained attention they deserve. Like physicians, lawyers, teachers and other practitioners who think they know best, journalists find little reason to question their own norms or to consider norms that, historically, never made their way into common definitions of acceptable practice.

Besides, norms in journalism, like norms elsewhere, easily and usually devolve into “common sense,” the taken-for-granted knowledge that any “insider” obviously knows; and once that happens, once norms become little more than a community’s conventional wisdom, the prospects for public scrutiny diminish considerably.

Thus, while journalism tacitly and uncritically reinforces its prevailing norms whenever it focuses its attention on violations of them, it also disregards the possibility of other norms. This is precisely the point Jeremy Iggers makes in Good News, Bad News, his penetrating study of journalism’s “dysfunctional ethical discourse,” when he asks, “Why does journalism’s internal conversation about ethics focus on Janet Cooke and similar cases while ignoring larger, more systematic shortcomings?”

Iggers begins to answer his own question by pointing to the one place where journalists celebrate their least contested norms: codes of ethics. Written by and for journalists, codes of ethics normally isolate journalism by insulating journalists from outside pressure; they protect journalists by letting journalists decide for themselves and by themselves what matters in the realm of ethics. Recently, another professor and I made an argument, that while unoriginal, makes an important point: While codes often invoke as a source of their authority “the public” or “the public interest,” in fact, the public seldom plays any meaningful role in a code’s creation, application or revision; the interests of the public matter only as they coincide with the interests of the profession.

Whatever useful purpose they serve, and no doubt they do, codes of ethics reduce morality to lists or categories of blameworthy and praiseworthy conduct. As satisfying as this might be to the journalists who participated in a code’s construction, it effectively disenfranchises others whose understanding of morality finds little or no recognition in a code’s provisions. Put a little differently, codes invariably exclude more than they include. This often means that journalists will quietly tolerate that broad range of unmentioned conduct that falls somewhere between what journalists get praised for doing and what they get blamed for doing.

Iggers puts it succinctly in his account of how codes evade important issues: “by defining a class of proscribed practices, they serve to legitimate the larger class of practices that are not proscribed.” As Iggers illustrates by comparing “traditional” cases that journalists readily recognize as “ethically significant” with “marginal” cases whose “very status as ethical issues is not acknowledged,” this larger class of protected practices – the unmentioned conduct that codes fail to address even obliquely – usually includes, from an outsider’s perspective, any number of contestable norms.

So, while journalists denuded a forest in its coverage of the misdeeds of Jayson Blair, what coverage will we see of the press’ disgraceful disregard for the importance of the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to increase the number and type of media outlets one company can own? The press more or less ignored the story, or relegated it to the business pages, until after the FCC’s vote. Then, suddenly, more front page stories appeared in one day than all of the front page stories in the months leading up to the FCC’s vote. If indeed this qualifies as “the most important changes to the nation’s media ownership rules in a generation,” as The New York Times claimed in a front page story the day after the FCC’s vote, then the press’s failure to cover it aggressively and prominently amounts to as big a scandal, and probably one with graver consequences, as the one involving Jayson Blair.
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Theodore L. Glasser, president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, is a professor of communication and director of the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University. This essay will appear in the July issue of AEJMC News.

 

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