Ethics and the news

Ethics and the news
: I’m at a packed (for good reason) session on ethics and the newsroom at the ASNE/NAA (newspaper editors’ and publishers’) conference. Among those on the panel: Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., chairman of NY Times; Jack Fuller, president of Tribune; Tony Ridder, chairman of Knight-Ridder; Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post; John Carroll, editor of the LA Times; Karen Dunlap of journalism gabtank Poynter; and Michael Josephson, an “ethicist.” My friend, Peter Bhatia, exec editor of the Oregonian, introduced them all. I’ll plan on blogging what I hear first; comment later.

: Josephson: “It’s not just about Jason Blair.” He lists plenty of scandals pre and post Blair. “The plague of humanity has, in fact, infected the people in journalism as well.” The plauge of ethics we see in business and even the Catholic church happens in journalism too.

There’s a frightening litany of poll results showing worsening respect for journalism in this country.

He holds up a huge pile of material on ethics put out by journalism organizations all over.

Then he shows a picture of his kids because he says ethics start at the family. It’s what I said at Bloggercon about how to handle issues of church and state in the blog world: It always comes down to personal integrity.

And he lists the “pillars of character” that my kids learn in elementary school. “Ethics isn’t that tough,” he says.

His Powerpoint asks: “Is a profession dedicated to asking others questions and demanding credible answers willing to do the same with respect to assertions and assumptions concerning traditional newsroom assumptions?”

: Asked whether newspapers are more than just profitable businesses, Ridder says “absolutely.”

Asked how he judges his papers on their public service obligation, Ridder says they put together all their public-service journalism. Then they went and asked readers what they thought about the papers judged against seven tenets (like “trust” and “credibility”).

The problem with this kind of abstraction and pedestal-placement, I think, is that it too often leads to creating long, ponderous series judged to be important (because they get prizes) but that’s not what this is about: It’s about covering the stories that matter better.

: Josephson says newspaper people are great “lamenters.” They lament about not having enough resources. “Are those just whiners or are they prophets,” he asks. Moore says it’s a reality. Yes, it is.

Carroll says he can’t believe that he’d be at the LA Times and think he’d need more people but he does.

Fuller says: “It’s human nature, especially if you have a high calling, to want more and to do more with it.”

Sulzburger says “Gutenberg probably needed another pressman desperately.”

He adds that “no matter how many resources you add to a broken system if you don’t fix the system you’re going to be in trouble…. This is not about ethics. We could add 100 reporters to the New York Times… That’s not what this is about.” Ethics aren’t resources. Right. It’s about the every day story, the every day job. “You can’t create a public editor and say that’s done… You have to own this process.”

: Dunlap says what’s needed is (1) more training for assigning editors, (2) a better newsroom culture, (3) focus on mission.

: Launching off the post-Blair NY Times report, Josephson probes the editors on how they vet hires. “Do you handle it with the same professional diligence as a story?” his slide asks. Moore says that too often, you can’t get the truth in a reference check because a former employer is scared of suits. (Hell, that’s how a killer nurse was passed from hospital to hospital in my area.) Josephson says in law enforcement, candidates sign waivers clearing former employers to tell all.

: The panel is almost over and we’ve only gotten this far: hiring. Someone in the audience — it turns out to be Russ Lewis (“I work at the New York Times company … until 12:31” and Sulzburger laughs heartily) — interrupts and says this is microscopic and there is a bigger issue of “truth in the newsroom.” Right. He asks, “Is there a role for an internal audit department for journalism, for news.” Now that is what the focus of this should be. And that “audit department” isn’t just internal, folks; the readers and the sources are at least contributors if not members of that department as well.

: Sulzberger says the new standards person is part of that.

“If I can try to bring this up a little…” Sulzberger says — which is just what this needs.

“I’d like to throw a larger idea out to this group. Why wait? Why wait for thekind of explosion that rocked the New York Times and is rocking USA Today… Why not go back to your newsroom with the assumption that there is someone like this in your newsroom?… Why not run the drill now?”

He says that until your newsroom believes in its soul that you’re serious about this, “it isn’t going to stick.”

I’m not sure exactly what he means: A fishing expedition meets a witch hunt? I hope that’s not it. Making reporters paranoid and timid can backfire. In my book, it’s more about going forward than back: How does a newsroom find out (again, from sources and readers) what’s wrong? How does the newsroom make sure that information comes in (if people think no one will listen, they won’t speak)? How will the newsroom act on it?

: Fuller says Tribune is creating a statement of editorial purpose for all media. Carroll says the credibility of the paper “has to be coddled by every single person in the newsroom.”

: Dunlap asks about whistleblowers in the newsroom. She says the bad guys are often known in the newsroom and the word doesn’t get to managers. Carroll says its the duty of staff members who know of misdeeds to “run” to editors. Josephson says you have to do more than put it in a code, “you have to fire people who didn’t tell.”

: Moore says the morale of the newsroom can turn with all this. Right. Reporters should not fear beheading when they make a mistake; it is better for the paper to report the mistake and care about the truth. Ditto columnists.

: Josephson: “Passing a code has never affected conduct.”

: Sulzberger gets the last word: “We had a truly horrible year at the New York Times last year.” He thanks Al Siegel, the author of the commission report, for getting the paper through its year. He says papers need standards that are monitored and measured and that are specific to newsrooms.

“The scariest thing of all of last year for me… wasn’t Jayson Blair…. The scariest part was that the people we lied about didn’t bother to call because they just assumed that’s the way newspapers worked. That’s scary.”

Amen and amen again.