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May 13, 2005


Seth Finkelstein

Don't worry about the specifics of the code.

Worry about who enforces it, or lack thereof.

Gary Goldhammer

My favorite is the Missouri School of Journalism's Journalist's Creed" written by Dean Walter Williams in 1908. I'm also a loyal Missouri J-School graduate, so I admit I am somewhat biased :-)


Ah, ethics. Unfortunately, an ethics code is only as good as the incentives to abide by it. Right now journalists are a large and diverse bunch and there is little consensus for drumming out unethical "journalists" from the media *cough*bobnovak*cough*--especially since we can't even decide who should be considered part of the "media."

Just as Google's "Don't be evil" motto will inevitably fall to the fiduciary obligations of a publicly held corporation, Journalists answer in some fashion to their pocket books and those of their employers and their employer's employers. It used to be that the news division of the network wasn't expected to be a profit center so their was less pressure to be sensational, but no more. Now journalism is little more than blogging on TV, only with less credibility.


My problem with the "be honorable" credo is that, while it's a good guideline for the self, it's much less useful for judging the actions of others, since it leaves so much wiggle room - allowing the offender to say "I didn't think what I did was wrong". You wouldn't write a contract that consisted of just "be honorable"; likewise, the reporter's contract with the reader should be more specific too. We need to account for the fact that different people have different conceptions of "honor".

From the Missouri Journalist's Creed:
"...I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service."

Are journalists in charge of advertising and editorial columns? If not, what good does it do for them to hold these beliefs?

(And are beliefs sufficient? The creed focuses much less on actions.)

If those who are in charge were using this creed as their guide, wouldn't we see them acting to root out op-ed payola by demanding full and explicit disclosure from their columnists, as recommended by Andrew Cline at the bottom of this post?

Do you know of any newspaper that's doing this?


Honor was Menken's favorite:

"Every man has feelings. Mine chiefly revolve around a concept of honor. This concept is incomprehensible to most Americans. They are a very moral people, but almost anaesthetic to honor."

and, according to Charles Fecher:

"Honor, Mencken concluded in a sharp definition, is ‘simply the morality of superior men.'"

Most ethics codes are static. When "honor" is the yardstick, it is a process-oriented decision. It requires you to think. I vote for "honor."


I like the "be honorable", but with the shoving towards relativism, what does it mean today?

Doesn't a claim of honor mean you have to say something or some behavior is wrong? We've been pushed into where almost everything except murder (I suppose) is a gray area.
And it used to be that shame would handle some of the gray areas, but where did that go? Now the "dishonored" write books and make big bucks.
In public life, the two parties take swipes at each other and, because of the gray areas, more and more outrageous claims stick longer. All of this has ties into civility - or the lack of it.

The Missouri School of Journalism's creed won't fly with the left - it mentions God.

Scote: we shouldn't need many "incentives" to adhere to ethics. We need to get back to where it's okay to say something is wrong and to try to have the rules apply to everyone. The incivility problem will improve when the incivil behavior is shamed.

This relativism infected journalism years ago and now that blogging has blasted journalism wide open, the industry is just now coming to grips with defining "right and wrong." I suspect that the industry will avoid this and we'll be stuck with more and more subjective personal opinion. I don't know about you, but it seems to be more and more important to see who wrote a story and to consider their biases when trying to interpret it. I guess it was always the case. Maybe I was blind, but I used to think a docuentary was supposed to be objective. Now it's advocacy.

This rampant relativism has put us in quite a bind - in many facets of life.


all, all honorable men, as someone once said.

Be a good person.

Enron had a code of ethics prominently displayed on their website. Corporate ethics/Journalistic ethic, oxymorons alike? (Sirrah, I take umbrage.)

According to Yochelson and Samenow, one of the distiguishing features of the criminal personality is the belief that he/she is really a good person.

Honor among thieves.

"I am not a crook." [Nixon]

So it goes. [Vonnegut]


Enron's values, from its 1998 Annual Report:

We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here.

We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another ... and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won't do it.

We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.


Yes, the Enron Code of Ethics. I'm sure Tyco and Adelphia had one too. As we know it was marketing and little more. But I have a question: While Enron is almost universally criticized as being a model for corruption, there is little written on how corrupt the UN is. Why?

The UN is Enron on steroids and everyone is quiet. Seems odd from a logical point of view.


yup, the U.N. is horribly corrupt - see the oil-for-food scandal. ("documentary evidence that the Bush administration was made aware of illegal oil sales and kickbacks paid to the Saddam Hussein regime but did nothing to stop them... scale of the shipments involved dwarfs those previously alleged by the Senate committee against UN staff...")

But not much coverage. You're right Al, it does seem odd from a logical point of view.

Steven I. Weiss

Dan - I'm not so sure that "the devil is in the details" when it comes to journalistic ethics. Every significant flap over an ethical violation that I can recall from Romenesko crossed a very bright line of "don't lie": don't make things up (Blair), don't pretend you were there when you weren't (Blair, Bragg, Albom), don't make people up (that whole bunch from the past couple months whose names have yet to be seared into my memory).
When Josh Gajer at CampusJ noted the NYT's ethical lapse with regard to Columbia, well, he's a student who at that point had been "doing journalism" for about two months; you didn't have to tell him that something was wrong to get him to know it.
How many real discussions ever have to be had about "the details"?
I can think of a few "details" discussions I've had in my (admittedly somewhat short) career, relating to sources who wanted to remain anonymous or felt that they'd said something off the record, or to potentical conflicts of interest, but pretty much everything that we talk about when we speak of a problem of a lack of journalistic ethics has never been an issue, because they are such bright-line things.
And as to those "detail" items, well, they're all case-by-case, subjective evaluations, and whatever choice one makes in regard to them will never invite the kind of universal scorn that the real humdingers we've been talking about invite. Inasmuch, they're not suited to positivist codification, anyway.

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