What is there for a journalist to believe in? I have a copy of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists in my lap as I write this, and it says in no uncertain terms that we should be “free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” OK, so we believe in the right to know. But ours is a slippery faith.
No reporter with any dignity wants to spend a lifetime honoring the public’s right to know more about Lindsay Lohan. Our fidelity is compromised on all sides: by what we think the public needs to know, by what we think it really wants to know, and by our own vacillat-ing eagerness to go to the bother of finding out. In short, the public has an absolute right to know whatever we feel like dishing out from day to day.
But even if journalism’s first principle makes skeptics of journalists, there are other principles. The business is a labyrinth of situational ethics, and journalists tread solemnly through it.
For the past month, Julia Lieblich has been returning calls for the Ethics AdviceLine, a service for journalists created six years ago by the Chicago Headline Club, which is the local chapter of the SPJ, and Loyola University’s Center for Ethics. The other day the AdviceLine passed a milestone, its 500th call, and issued an announcement. I called the number, 866-DILEMMA. Lieblich was on duty. A professor of journalism at Loyola, she’s written for Fortune and the AP, covered religion for the Tribune, and attended Harvard’s divinity school.
“I’ve traveled some,” she said. “I’ve been to Afghanistan and Sierra Leone the last couple of years, and I’d have loved to have received some guidance about relationships with sources, issues of money, issues of want-ing to do something but not being in an advocacy position. I found it very, very difficult. I found the AdviceLine method has been helpful to me after the fact. I’m working on a book about survivors of the concentration camps in Bosnia. It helps me to know there can be more than one right answer. There can be several ethical choices. I find it a tremendous relief. I didn’t understand that until I spoke to David Ozar.”
Ozar, former director of Loyola’s Center for Ethics and Social Justice, created the advice line with Casey Bukro, a retired Tribune reporter and the father of the SPJ code of ethics. Ozar helped Lieblich think more clearly about the classic journalist’s dilemma: to observe or to observe and intervene? “I always thought I was ‘doing the wrong thing’ because of the choices I made,” she said.
Choosing to help?
“Yes. But after. After the story’s done. I never want to be in a position where I’m paying for an interview or paying for access or paying for information. But I don’t want to see desperation and not–”
“Yes. Now I know there are important guidelines but often more than one defensible choice.”
But how can both alternatives be ethical? If it’s right for a reporter to get involved, isn’t it just as wrong for her not to? “There are people,” Lieblich replied, “who say that giving money to a poor person is not as valuable as telling a story that could lead to, say, social action or a change in policy. Or lead to greater awareness of a problem. And giving any money compromises the person as a journalist.”
But journalists aren’t social engineers. They’re witnesses. “That’s why I couched it that most people would agree the job of a journalist is to raise awareness,” she said. “I don’t find reporters that detached as a group.”
Lieblich told me about calls she receives from young reporters in small towns who are more worried about their careers than their ethics. They know the right thing to do–but “everybody knows everybody and if they do an investigative piece there will be repercussions,” she said. “It’s ‘How much is my editor going to back me?'”
Casey Bukro’s pronouncements on ethics have an air of ingenuous conviction to them. He wrote the AdviceLine announcement, which touted a couple recent calls (neither taken by Lieblich) as signs of the times–one from a newspaper reporter whose managing editor was asking for favorable coverage of advertisers, the other, the 501st call in fact, from a broadcaster in Long Island with the same problem. “At a time when revenue, circulation and advertising decline throughout the industry,” Bukro advised, journalists need to beware. “Such practices can harm media credibility, which is won hard and lost easily.”
The Long Island caller was thinking of blowing the whistle. AdviceLine suggested contacting the New York SPJ chapter “for help in getting the station’s management to reconsider its unethical practice, and to direct management’s attention to the SPJ Code of Ethics.”
The code says in black and white, “Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.” Did the station’s general manager examine this text? Did his face redden with shame as he whistled, “Well, I’ll be. I had no idea we weren’t supposed to butter up the folks who put food on our tables. I sure wish someone had shown this to me a long time ago.”
That thought flickered as I continued to read Bukro’s announcement: “Media credibility has never been more important, as the public watches cases involving ethics all across the country. Chicago alone had two recently,” the Conrad Black trial and the Amy Jacobson dustup.
What if Black had called the AdviceLine, I asked Bukro, who was doing his best to take me seriously, and said he was selling his papers and stood to realize about a $60 million personal profit from noncompete agreements, yet he felt uneasy?
“We’d have pulled out the SPJ code of ethics and read the pertinent parts of it,” he said.
There are pertinent parts?
“Take a look.”
What I found was the admonition that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” I imagined Black insisting, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid with these noncompete agreements. The money’s secondary.”
As for Amy Jacobson?
“Her case is clearer,” Bukro said. She’d called her husband as she sped toward Plainfield, her kids squirming in the backseat of her car. I don’t know what her husband said, but if she’d tapped 866-DILEMMA, Bukro said, an ethicist might have knocked some sense into her head by asking, “Would you like to see your picture on the front page of the newspaper showing you in your bathing suit trying to cover the story?”
Bukro’s so old school. Front page, hell. Jacobson got to watch herself on YouTube.
When the Cubs Wane, the Sun-Times Whacks
Is the Sun-Times sports department running an in-house competition? First one to flatline the Cubs wins an all-expenses-paid trip to Dairy Queen?
I’m not so sure something of the sort isn’t going on. The Cubs, you know, are owned (for the time being) by the company that owns the Tribune, and for years the rival Sun-Times has written gleefully about biased coverage and incompetent management. When the Cubs wane, the paper whacks.
But the Sun-Times’s absurd reaction last week to a tough Cubs loss makes me wonder if it’s become captive to its own disparaging reflexes. There have been so many games since that you might have forgotten this one, but on September 6 the Cubs blew a 4-3 ninth-inning lead at Wrigley Field when the Dodgers’ Andre Ethier lofted a three-run homer into the basket in left center and another run scored on a wild pitch. When it’s September and the pennant race is tight, every loss hurts. This one hurt a lot.
But the Sun-Times turned it into a death rattle. “Maybe they’re just not good enough,” wrote beat reporter Gordon Wittenmyer. “The way they’ve looked all year against the better teams in the league, the way they’ve played late in the season and the way they finished Thursday, they don’t look like a championship team, or even a playoff team.”
A second story by Wittenmyer was just as gloomy. “The Cubs denied the life-sucking power of the loss, but they might as well have been doubled over and wheezing as they spoke.”
Wittenmyer’s new to Chicago this season–his last job was in the Twin Cities–and maybe his touch for dissing the Cubs needs some refining. But he’s not out of step with his paper. Here’s how old hand Greg Couch began his account of the same game, “Boo. Booooo. How can you watch the Cubs and not boo? It’s not a nasty thing, but a natural reaction, a reflex.” And consider the headlines, written by editors to set the tone. “Their look says they’re lost” topped one of Wittenmyer’s stories. Over Couch’s was “Fans bleed Cubbie boos / Thursday’s collapse adds to growing sentiment that team will lose shaky division. . . .”
Collapse? Life-sucking loss? Baseball writers would demand the trade or release of any player half as defeatist. On September 2 the Cubs had come from behind with three late-inning runs to beat Houston. On August 28 they’d turned a loss to Milwaukee into a win with a four-run seventh inning. Good teams win more games like that than they lose, and when they blow a lead in the ninth they come back out and play hard the next day. Even after the Dodgers loss the Cubs were still in first place.
Dave van Dyck got it right in the Tribune. “And now,” his story the next morning began, “Cub fans will be able to see just what their odd little baseball team is made of.”
Well, yeah, in fact the Cubs did lose the next day to Pittsburgh, 6-1. But that’s neither here nor there.
For more, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.