In Herman Cain story, being flip about journalism ethics is not an appropriate response
By Kevin Z. Smith
When presidential candidate Herman Cain decided to challenge the press coverage of the sexual harassment charges surrounding his campaign, he reached for an interesting source of support: the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
Last week his camp handed out copies to members of the media and mailed copies to the Los Angeles Times among others. He asked the press corps to evaluate how the Politico/Washington Post coverage violated specific tenets of the code. He also took his fight to the airwaves, touting the code on Fox News. Never mind that he blundered on the name and called it the “Journalists’ Code of Conduct.”
Our initial assessment of his claims are articulated in a previous post by Ethics Committee member Irwin Gratz. While we haven’t seen anything that would suggest that the reporting violated ethical standards, there is never a bad time to raise ethical questions. Journalists have standards of professional conduct and often put themselves through the steps of evaluating their behavior and work before it reaches the public sphere. That is precisely what sound ethical decision making is about. Questioning those decisions is fair and legitimate, generally because it creates healthy debate that is usually beneficial to our profession.
What has transpired from some people, however, has been something of a panning of Cain’s efforts, not just because he dared to challenge the press’ handling of the reports, but because he suggested that journalists need to follow “codes of conduct.” Silly, right?
On Monday the defense of the media started, and what’s transpired has proved to be more problematic for the fight for journalistic ethics than anything Cain alleged.
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus went after Cain, defending the paper but admitting she wasn’t familiar with the SPJ Code of Ethics. She wrote: “I suffer from the instinctive journalistic aversion to official codes of conduct.” Meaning that most journalists avoid such tripe, contrived codes in favor of what, flipping a coin to make an ethical decision? Consulting the Magic 8 ball on her desk?
Later Monday, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell showed her relative lack of ethical knowledge by snarking to Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, the reporter who broke the original story, “I assume you’ve read the journalistic code of conduct, whatever that is.” His response was equally flippant: “I have my copy well thumbed.”
This dismissive attitude only bothers me in that these people have presumably elevated their journalistic game to the level that they’ve landed employment with major national media outlets and have secured a visibility and reputation for being among the elite press corps in this country.
Well, not with knowledge of ethical standards, it appears.
First, to suggest that most journalists have an instinctive aversion to codes of ethics is wrong. In fact, it’s the minority, as in any profession, who seems to be devoid of knowledge about ethical standards. Second, to treat this code as if you’ve just come across a treasure map and have reservations about its validity shows more of a lack of comprehension on your part than it says about the legitimacy of the document.
The irony to all this, of course, is that every day some journalist or citizen visits the SPJ website and reviews our code. Aside from the home page, the Code of Ethics is the most visited page on our website. And, judging by the number of times “SPJ” and “code of ethics” appear in Google searches, it’s been well noted that our code is cited more than 300 times a year in making arguments for better ethical behavior.
That people like Martin, Mitchell and Marcus haven’t heard of the code shouldn’t be a badge of honor. That they scoff at the notion of a code of conduct should be an indictment about their work, not that of the Society’s for upholding ethical standards for so long. And, it’s likely that the Post, MSNBC and Politico have internal codes of ethics that guide their journalists’ work. Are they unaware of those as well?
Our code has been translated into 16 different languages and has long been the gold standard for ethical conduct in the profession. It has been copied, emulated and revised by news organizations for internal use here in the U.S. and around the world.
This summer a copy of SPJ’s new ethics book and the code made its way into the hands of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron is creating a committee to evaluate the ethical standards of the British press after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. The code could play a helpful role in establishing or reaffirming standards in that country.
And, the same day Mitchell and company were joking about this code, I received an email from a Knight International Journalism Fellow who is going to Haiti to work with journalists. She asked if SPJ could give her a copy of its new ethics book and some codes of ethics. I’m mailing those to her this week. That very shortly Haitian journalists will learn professional ethics using our code while certain Washington press members sit back and joke about it shouldn’t be lost on the thousands of journalists who have it posted in their newsrooms, or the thousands of college students who are taught professional ethics with the code as the backdrop.
Cain’s allegations aside, the last thing the press in this country needs are self-inflicted wounds over ethical standards.
Kevin Z. Smith is a past SPJ national president and current chairman of the Ethics Committee