Needed: Ethics, from the bottom up

August 8, 2005

A squall of ethics-related scandals continues to gust through the country’s newsrooms. But ignored in the bluster over cribbed quotes, undisclosed taping and outright fakery is a political reality of fundamental importance: Ethics has quietly, and without objection, been made into an exclusive instrument of senior managers. In nearly all cases, the finding that ethical standards were breached is made by bosses, and management decides the response.

That seems so obvious that it isn’t worth mentioning. Besides, how else would professional standards be set?

For starters, they might be set by the profession itself, not its paymasters. This is not a trivial distinction. The norms of conscientious journalists are not always identical with the policies of a particular employer. An employee manual isn’t an ethics text. It’s a comprehensive set of workplace policies, from punctuality to vacations.

True, it may also have ethics-related provisions, and news organizations are often run by solid journalists whose judgment on matters of professional conduct is thoughtful and sound. But management’s principal duty is to protect the interests of the institution – its image, its prospects, its survival. That responsibility may differ from the duties that journalists employed by that institution feel professionally obligated to carry out. The question becomes not whether ethics will prevail, but whose ethics will prevail.

That cuts both ways. Employers may prohibit things that newsrooms find unobjectionable – forbidding campaign bumper stickers, even for staff who come nowhere near covering politics. (That’s a PR call — a reasonable one in my view — but it isn’t ethics, even if it’s couched in the language of evenhandedness and trust.) Conversely, employers may allow things that make professionals shudder. The reporter who’s forbidden to accept a beer from a source may wonder why his publisher rides on the plane of a billionaire who regularly figures in the paper’s business pages. That’s a conflict of interest that passes muster, apparently.

The ethical clash can be extreme. We expect the editor to defy the tyrant and publish the story that must be told, even though the newspaper will be shuttered in reprisal. We want the publisher to ignore the threat of horrendous litigation and stand by the investigative expose, even if it’s vulnerable to challenge.

But the professional duty to speak the truth rarely outweighs the institutional will to prosper – especially in an industry constituted chiefly around business goals.

Indeed, those kinds of institutional compromises don’t even register as ethical lapses nowadays, measured against such weighty matters as recycled quotes and improper attribution. Contemporary journalism ethics has smaller fish to fry.

The appropriation of ethics into management’s toolbox represents a change. The 1926 canons of the professional journalism society Sigma Delta Chi, an early ethics document, set forth duties that didn’t necessarily coincide with what bosses were demanding. “Freedom from all obligations except that of fidelity to the public interest is vital,” the canons state.

That’s an extraordinary declaration of professional independence. Following its logic, the reporter who’s directed to develop a special report on some lifestyle frivolity unrelated to “the public interest” might have to refuse – not because it’s harmful, but because it’s just not what journalists do.

Unthinkable, right? That’s because professional ethics has become mainly a source of discipline from above rather than guidance from within. And that’s too bad.

Top-down ethics disempowers working journalists and weakens newsrooms. Rigid hierarchies remove from the management loop staffers who know which of their peers are out of line – and which policies might be promoting unethical conduct. That’s how hierarchy enables corner-cutting. Invariably, in the wake of scandal reporters come forward to vent suspicions they’d been discouraged from sharing. Ironically, management’s response is then to choke up on its supervisory leash, rather than to widen participation in decision making to ensure the news operation conforms with broadly shared norms.

What’s needed is a return to bottom-up ethics, with workplace right and wrong as a body of principles that people engaged in a professional practice develop to guide and explain themselves. Newsrooms need groups of peers who constitute themselves as ethics councils and take on these matters informally. They don’t need a mandate or a manifesto; if they try to be wise and fair, they’ll speak with moral authority.

Journalism’s central claim is to serve the public by seeking and telling the truth – a powerful ethical claim. The credibility of that claim is key to professional survival, and that’s too important a matter to be left to newsroom managers.

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