Ethics in journalism: what really matters

Funny how isolated events come together.

Event #1: A week ago, my friend Buffy Andrews at the York Daily Record asked Twitter for thoughts on a colleague’s ethical question. He was covering a story and a source — a Marine — gave him a hat or what he called a “cover.” Because journalists don’t like to take anything for free — it looks bad — the journalist politely refused. The Marine insisted. By accepting, did he cross an ethical line?

I responded with two tweets: “No dilemma. Keep it. We worry about too much.” And: “Readers don’t understand our obsession with small bore ethics when we have large bore problems.” Steve Buttry describes the situation – and my position – fully.

Event #2: Last week, my mass communications class discussed the principles of journalism. I had presented the first five articulated by Rosenthiel and Kovach.

No. 4: “Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.”

No. 5: “It must serve as an independent monitor of power.”

Event #3: Yesterday, NBC17 reporter Kim Genardo tweeted that she had accepted a job as Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications director. As Jim Romenesko points out, 10 days earlier, she was promoting her one-on-one interview with the governor. And just three days ago, she was still covering the governor — misspelling his name in a tweet — in her reporting job.

I suppose it is possible that Genardo didn’t know on Wednesday that she was a candidate to work for the governor. After all, the vetting process for job candidates in the new administration has been bumpy. But it seems unlikely to me. Genardo responded to questions raised about the possible conflict this way, as reported at Romenesko’s site:

“I covered both of Gov McCrory’s campaigns and NEVER spoke to him or asked about employment. I have integrity. The outgoing comm director recommended me for the job and I seized the opportunity.”

It raises as many questions as it doesn’t answer, including Gov. McCrory didn’t  interview his own communications director?

Anyway, back to the point: there are small bore ethical issues that journalists tend to struggle with and the public doesn’t understand or value: “I must pay for all of my meals with sources.” “I cannot accept that gift, even though its value is less than $10 and I will insult you by spurning it.”

And there are large bore ethical issues that the public understands quite well. Independence from those we cover is one. Rosenthiel and Kovach explain it clearly.

“Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. The Founders recognized this to be a rampart against despotism when they ensured an independent press; courts have affirmed it; citizens rely on it. As journalists, we have an obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain.”

How can you blame NBC17 viewers who might think that Genardo’s coverage of the governor was influenced by her interest in working for the governor? (It doesn’t matter if happened that way. It’s how it appears.) Genardo hasn’t yet explained the sequence of events of how she went from reporter covering the governor to spokeswoman working for the governor. (Or at least, I haven’t found it.) I suspect that’ll be among the first questions she’s asked in her new job.

3 thoughts on “Ethics in journalism: what really matters

  1. As usual, Rosenthiel and Kovach are dead on. Coincidentally, this past Monday, Rachel Maddow aired a special called “Hubris” about how we got into, and why we stayed in, Iraq. Although the focus of the piece is decisions and actions by government officials, the unavoidable — and, unfortunately, in the media business, unmentionable — fact is that this $3 trillion mistake was not just ignored but was aided, abetted and cheerled by most U.S. media outlets. (I was pleased to go back into the archives and see that the News & Record’s editorial after Colin Powell’s speech to the UN was deeply skeptical..)

    The blogger Driftglass, who — vapors alert! — sometimes uses cuss words, live-tweeted hubris and then collected his tweets and some summary material into a blog post. As did the special, he focused on government action, but if you read the piece, he also makes the unmistakable point that the news media were complicit in this crime against humanity (for that is what unilateral military invasion of a country with which we are at peace, and against which we have not declared war, really is). It’s depressing to read, and it’s absolutely essential.

    Measured against fusterclucks like that, I’d take the cover offered by the Marine, thank him, donate it to the Salvation Army and say no more about it. (If I were still at the N&R, of course, it could go into the year-end freebies auction to benefit Urban Ministry.)

  2. The problem began after the SEC deregulated TV stations. Suddenly, those owning Television stations could also own newspapers, and vice-versa. Then suddenly, journalism had to “earn” ad ratings. Then media took over. Voila. I work in public relations. The last time a fact-checker called me, (remember them?) was in 1999.

  3. Pingback: Journalistic integrity: ethics in reporting | Report Schick

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