When the good guys take center stage

It’s not often we give credit to journalists who do the right thing when it comes to ethics. That’s too bad.

Most of the 18 years I’ve spent on SPJ’s Ethics Committee has been used admonishing journalists when their professional conduct falls short. Every day I get Google Alerts on my cell phone telling me when SPJ’s name is used. Many times it occurs when ethics are involved. SPJ isn’t the only one chiding media types for their ethical lapses. According to these Google Alerts, about three times a day someone is citing our ethics code and taking someone to task.

Just for the record, those of us at SPJ would rather see proactive discussions using our ethics code instead of using it as a tool for punishment. Talk ethics all the time and the code becomes a living organism and not a bludgeoning device.

So, in my book, when there’s an opportunity to say congratulations for standing up and doing the right thing, we need to hear that as well.

Two cases to mention.

The first involves the leaders of an Alaskan TV station who took a bold step to suspend their newscasts for an evening so they could gather staff  to talk ethics. Here’s the Associated Press’ account:

A TV station took the unusual step of canceling its evening
newscasts Wednesday so the staff could discuss ethics after the flap
over a voicemail two producers accidentally left for a GOP Senate
candidate’s spokesman.

The Oct. 28 recorded message by the KTVA producers involved possible
scenarios for covering a rally for Republican Joe Miller, who had
been endorsed by Sarah Palin.

Miller’s camp says producers were discussing making up stories about
the candidate. Palin said the recording showed media bias.

Station general manager Jerry Bever wrote on the KTVA website that
Wednesday’s 5 and 6 p.m. broadcasts were canceled for the internal
discussion.

The station instead aired reruns of “The New Adventures of Old
Christine,” the Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.

The two producers involved in the recording are no longer with the
station, a CBS affiliate.

“Events over the last week and a half have been challenging for our
station,” Bever wrote. “As the result of a conversation within our
newsroom that was accidentally recorded and released to the public,
our newsroom credibility has been called into question, and the
public’s trust in us has been tested.

“Our job as journalists carry a far greater responsibility than that
of media personalities and pundits,” Bever wrote. “We have been
given the public’s trust … now we must keep it.”

Let me say this is a bold initiative. It’s one thing to bring staff together and talk, but to make a statement that says “we’re not doing another newscast, showing our faces on the air until we make sure our ethics house is in order” takes courage and commitment. Nice job.

The second incident involves an online publication, North by Northwestern, at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

A story published online featured a student’s comments about finances and college life that resulted in a harsh backlash from other students who logged onto the site and commented. The student took a beating. So the story was taken off the site.

Here’s what editor Nick Castele said about his decision to remove the story from publication:

Now, North by Northwestern cannot hold itself responsible for every reaction of every reader. Readers must be responsible for themselves. In an Internet environment where anyone may attack others while remaining anonymous, readers must consider their own responsibility to the Web community.

But we do hold ourselves responsible for minimizing the harm caused in the process of making public the lives of real people. The Society of Professional Journalists, in its Code of Ethics, calls for media to uphold that responsibility.

That is why I removed the story from the Web when I became aware of the attacks. Until I could better assess the reporting and effect of the story, I wanted to minimize what seemed to be undue personal harm to one of our sources.

After carefully reviewing the reporting process and verifying it was done in accordance with the best reporting practices, Castele decided the story should be reposted but wanted to stick to his conviction of minimizing harm.

Consider this line from the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention.”

Only one source quoted in this story is a public official within the Northwestern community. All others are private students. The story is not really about them as individuals. They appear in the story to give voice to the very different financial backgrounds and experiences found among students at this university. This piece is not about four students. It’s about all of us.

I have therefore decided to republish the story with sources’ names withheld. None of the sources requested anonymity — and, upon the story’s initial publication, it was not the reporter’s or the editors’ responsibility to conceal identities.

But it seems important to consider the degree of personal harm one of our sources experienced as a result of publication. I believe that granting anonymity is an appropriate step toward minimizing that harm.

This is another bold move by a journalist, fairly unprecedented in my time in the field, but certainly a decision that seems to come with a lot of careful deliberation. And, in the end, that’s what we want from ethics — sound moral decisions though deliberation allowing all perspectives that are ultimately defendable.

In both cases these bold moves, albeit unorthodox, showed initiative, courage, conviction and resulted in defendable decisions.

And,  for that they deserve our admiration.

Kevin Z. Smith is the chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and the immediate past president of the Society.

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