The press is forever telling major institutions–city hall, big business, the church–to clean up their acts. What about the press’s own act? Last month Medill’s journalism school issued a report that concluded the level of self-criticism in the nation’s newsrooms is too low, though it didn’t say what the right level is.
“I think it’s going to be hard to change if we say it’s not our fault,” assistant dean Ellen Shearer told Gretchen Helfrich on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight. Shearer was discussing the report, “Newspaper Reporter and Editor Attitudes Toward Credibility, Errors and Ethics,” for which 527 journalists at 218 daily newspapers were surveyed. She told Helfrich the journalists complained about Jayson Blair, TV news, and “agenda-driven media,” saying they undermined public confidence in their papers’ credibility. But most felt unethical behavior was “not an actual problem at their newspapers–it’s more other people,” she went on. “That’s a little concerning to me.”
The Medill report strains to support the proposition that what’s going on in American newsrooms needs to change. It says at the outset that it’s concerned with “inaccurate, misleading or fabricated” newspaper content. But when it asked the journalists about their own experience with tainted journalism in the previous year the list of possible scenarios led off with: “Reader accused you of ‘bias.'” Seventy-two percent of journalists said that had happened to them. I’m only surprised the number wasn’t higher. Next was: “Suspected source misled you,” and 39 percent of the journalists said they’d been suspicious. Again, welcome to journalism. These can be moments of anguish for reporters, but they’re not necessarily evidence of turpitude.
The list of scenarios is titled “experience with mistakes or dishonesty.” But the genuinely troubling misbehavior, the kind that does need cleaning up, doesn’t appear to happen very often. “Suspected peer of plagiarism”–12 percent. “Editor pressure to change”–9 percent. “Publisher pressure to change”–5 percent.
Let’s look at some other numbers. When the journalists were asked why public confidence in newspapers has declined, 71 percent of them listed “external factors,” such as national media scandals, and only 47 percent listed problems at their own papers or with newspapers generally. The Medill report interprets this disparity as evidence that journalists are in denial, but I don’t see why. Public confidence is declining for lots of reasons–some external, some internal, and some having to do with changes in the nature of the public (which 44 percent of journalists polled mentioned). External factors are the most obvious and the most universal–Jayson Blair is a cross every journalist bears, even ones whose own newsrooms are beyond reproach. The report offers no evidence that the journalists who cited external factors or audience factors were closing their eyes to what went on around them in their own shops.
Then there are the findings about who blows the whistle on bad journalism. “Instances of unethical behavior by newspaper reporters are much more likely to come to light through passive processes than as a result of active investigation,” Medill reports. Fifty-three percent of the journalists said there’d been a problem with ethics or unprofessional behavior in their newsroom in the past five years, and 47 percent of this group said the problem “simply came to light over time as information accumulated, facts failed to mesh and inconsistencies became obvious.” A “tip” brought the misbehavior to light 34 percent of the time and a “confession” 26 percent of the time, while an “internal investigation” was a “significant factor in uncovering ethical misconduct” 30 percent of the time.
“To us that seemed low,” Shearer told me. “It seemed to me that you would have liked to have seen that first–the leading way misconduct is discovered is that the people in the newsroom are actively critiquing each other’s work.”
Actually, the active critiquing of each other’s work that goes on in newsrooms–editing, fact-checking–is standard procedure and probably prevents most mistakes, including ethical lapses, from ever getting into print. But if the discussion is limited only to ethical lapses that get published, and 30 percent is too low, what’s just right? I asked her. She couldn’t say.
Journalists might say the more internal critiquing the better when they’re talking about federal bureaucracies, research labs, and police stations. But they don’t want their own newsrooms to operate like Moscow in the 30s.
I asked Chicago’s ethics Savonarola what he thought. Tribune reporter Casey Bukro has crusaded for decades to get journalists to hold each other accountable. All that his efforts have accomplished is a line at the end of the code of ethics of the national Society of Professional Journalists declaring that “journalists should. . . expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.”
It’s a vestige of a pledge SPJ ratified in 1973. The pledge, which Bukro wrote, was the garnish on that era’s code of ethics. It said, “Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards, and they should encourage their observance by all newspeople.”
No one was ever censured, Bukro says, and SPJ didn’t even describe a process by which censure was supposed to take place. In 1986 Bukro wrote a resolution that specified a series of steps–complaint, hearing, recommendation–and a range of punishments, from a letter of reprimand to dismissal from SPJ. But instead of adopting the resolution that would have given the censure pledge teeth, SPJ dropped the pledge. That step was taken on the advice of SPJ’s Washington attorney, who worried that a censured member of SPJ would turn around and sue.
“SPJ considers adherence to the code of ethics voluntary. It does not enforce the code,” Bukro told me. “Code enforcement was what I was pushing for, and that became a dirty word.”
I asked him for his seat-of-the-pants opinion about how much internal misconduct a paper can reasonably be asked to uncover on its own.
Most papers don’t have ombudsmen, he replied, but where there is one–a person staffers can talk over their suspicions with so they don’t feel they’re tattling to the boss–maybe 50 percent.
But not all?
“One hundred percent,” he said, “would suggest Big Brother.”