A lot of people got really upset at the behavior of some newspaper reporters and executives last week. I must say, I’m glad they did.
News consumers around the world were outraged at the latest revelations about the British tabloid News of the World. After the newspaper for years denied rumors that its reporters hacked into the phone lines of members of the royal family, victims of terrorism and a murdered 13-year-old girl, and then bribed police, the scandal broke wide open. Investigations were launched, journalists were arrested, and news executives resigned.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks the popularity of news stories, reported that the News of the World scandal was the topic of 53 percent of all the links shared last week on the social network Twitter.
Many of the comments passed along with those links were scathing. “How about people boycott the NOTW [News of the World] indefinitely?” one Tweeter wrote. That won’t be necessary now, given that the publication was shut down after 168 years in print.
My greater fear was that people would assume that’s how reporters behave, that they will go to any lengths to get a story, that there are no rules that govern our work.
Clearly in this instance, the alleged methods were extreme and illegal. But beyond simply following the law, journalists are expected to abide by a generally accepted code of ethics. We don’t always do a good job of educating readers about the code.
Journalists don’t misrepresent themselves when talking to sources. They don’t plagiarize other people’s words. They are sensitive when interviewing people affected by tragedy. They remain independent, not bowing to advertisers or public officials. Those are a few of the tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. You can read the entire code at www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
Last week, The Kansas City Star fired a columnist who had worked for the paper more than 30 years after editors found he was repeatedly “using material that wasn’t his and representing it as his own work.” We should be troubled that he plagiarized. We should be glad the Star didn’t tolerate it.
At the TNT, we talked a lot about the ethics code as we prepared last Sunday’s front-page story about anarchists in Olympia. In the story, a photographer for our sister paper, The Olympian, expressed regret for allowing police to view a picture on the back of his camera during a protest. Beyond that, he didn’t tell his editors he’d done so. The picture helped police arrest a man who threw a rock through a bank window.
“I shouldn’t have done it as a journalist,” the photographer said. “I can’t be seen as an arm of law enforcement.”
Some readers couldn’t see what was wrong with a journalist freely handing over information to police.
We asked journalism ethicist Kelly McBride about the incident to be sure we were on the right track.
“The photographer compromised the paper’s independence by cooperating with police,” McBride said. “The editor should communicate that the paper’s policy is to act independently as a witness to community events and a watchdog for those in authority and that the photog violated that.”
Of course a journalist is allowed to report a crime, and police may use our published photos when they conduct investigations. But sharing a photo before it’s available to everyone puts us clearly on the side of police when our job is to be watchdogs of their work, as well. The Olympian wrote about the matter and disciplined the photographer.
Obviously, journalists will err. When we do, we should hold one another accountable. Sometimes that means publicly admitting we’ve fallen short, which this newspaper has had to do a number of times. Sometimes it means disciplining or firing those who violate the code. We’ve had to do that, as well.
News consumers ought to expect us to abide by our ethics code. And when we fall short, I’m OK if you find that upsetting.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434