Journalistic Ethics

I was practically born in a newsroom. My mother always said that while she wasn’t the first woman copy editor at the Houston Chronicle, she was the first pregnant copy editor. When I worked there many summers later as a copy girl, there were people still there who knew me before I was born.

Which is to say, that while I was raised Episcopalian, the true religion in my childhood home was journalism. Both my parents worked on newspapers throughout their lives, eventually running several weeklies outside of Houston after they got tired of putting up with top management at the city’s dailies.

Their principles were rooted in journalism. Get the facts right. Do what it takes to get the story. And you gotta run the story even if it’s going to piss off the powerful people who might sue and who will certainly pull their advertising.

I came up with a strong sense of journalistic ethics. So it surprised the hell out of me the first time I met a reporter who said they never voted because they didn’t think journalists should take sides. My parents were also Democrats. Liberal Democrats at that, going back to when Texas didn’t have but a handful of Republicans and the political struggles were all within the Democratic Party.

My mother always told me she stood in line for two hours, in the rain, pregnant to vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. I can’t verify the two hours and it was not, in fact, raining on election day in Houston (my mother was stickler for facts when she was working but she never let them get in the way of a good family story), but she was certainly pregnant because my sister was born the next May.

When my father was covering the Harris County (Houston) Courthouse back in the early 1960s, he got to know the lawyer who was representing Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights activists there, a man named George Washington who was also the first African American graduate from the University of Texas School of Law (my alma mater). They became good friends.

My parents never joined any demonstrations, but they didn’t keep quiet about their opinions on segregation either.

And when they ran their newspapers, they never once gave some person with extreme right wing views access to their editorial page.

So I was glad to see James Bennett leave his position as editor of the editorial page at The New York Times. Apparently he thought the Times was obligated to publish the views of someone who advocates violence against those protesting racism simply because it was a different point of view.

That smacks of the “I don’t vote because I don’t take side” attitude. Both are nonsense.

You don’t give up your rights as a citizen when you become a journalist, any more than you do in any other profession. As with most professions, you have some obligations that go beyond what is required of others, but you don’t give up the rights that go along with citizenship.

Likewise, a publication gets to choose who it publishes. If a white supremacist with some political power makes outrageous statements in public, a newspaper may decide it should cover that as news, but it does not have to give that person a place to promote their offensive ideas.

I’m all in favor of a newspaper publishing both news analysis and opinion pieces that provide several different points of view on how to solve a societal problem. But when the problem is, say, racism, we don’t need to listen to the views of white supremacists. They’re the definition of the problem, not a step toward solution. Newspapers get to make that call.

The true violation of journalism ethics is to misinterpret information presented as news so that it fits your world view, something that is all too common with some well-known broadcast outlets.

Reporters and newspapers should always try to get the facts right. Sometimes that means learning about much more than the facts. Sometimes that means a good reporter is going to dig deep enough to find something that conflicts with their opinions or those of their publication. They need to tell the truth about what they discover.

That’s journalism ethics 101: find out what’s really going on and tell the truth about it. Even if it pisses off the powerful. Maybe especially if it pisses off the powerful.

2 thoughts on “Journalistic Ethics

  1. The idea that “fairness” requires that you give someone whose views are irresponsible or just plain odious a platform… confounds me.

    Back when I was a kid in Greenwich Village, at a school that more or less defined middle-class 60s liberalism (a dozen kids from the high school spent the summer before their senior year in the south, lending aid and comfort to the Freedom Riders), the school had the opportunity to host a lecture by a guy who had a fairly lurid conspiracy theory about JFK’s assassination that went well beyond legitimate questions into the realm of the X-Files. Some of the parents (my father was one of them) felt that there were plenty of platforms for this guy, and my school was not obligated in the name of balance to give him another. Those parents were excoriated by other parents as enemies of free speech–I was spat on by one of my classmates (that classmate doesn’t remember this, 60 years later. Oddly, I do). I remember my father sitting me down to explain the difference between censorship and what I would term editorial choice. In the end, the lecture didn’t happen, but it caused a deep–albeit relatively short-lived–rift in the school community.

    1. One wonders if the people who thought free speech obligated them to give a platform to such conspiracy nuts would feel the same way today in light of the way conspiracy theories have become embedded in our politics.

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