When We’re Good, We’re Very Very Good

“How much worse can it get for ethics in journalism and credibility?” muses Casey Bukro, ethics chair of the Chicago Headline Club. Actually, it could get a lot worse. What if journalists didn’t think about ethics at all?

Instead, they brood, none more than Bukro. That’s why the Association for Women Journalists panel discussion this month is “As Military Music Is to Music: Journalistic Ethics in a Changing Media Environment.” It’s why Chicago has an Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a joint project of the Headline Club and Loyola University that was Bukro’s idea. The other day he announced that the AdviceLine is now easier than ever to take advantage of: it can be reached by phone at 866-DILEMMA (toll-free) or online at ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org. If you’re a reporter lost in an ethical thicket, help is at hand.

Bukro’s announcement makes it clear that in his view help is direly needed. He laments, “Four CBS News producers and executives are fired for failing to meet basic journalistic standards in preparing a ’60 Minutes’ report on President Bush’s National Guard service, and issuing a series of misleading statements in defense of the story. Tribune Media Services cancels Armstrong Williams’ syndicated column for taking $240,000 in government money to promote a Bush administration education program. With each new report of ethics bungling, tensions between journalists and the public they serve grow worse. Journalists need ethics advice more than ever.”

Let’s say that journalists do. The larger point is that journalists know they do. That’s because journalists, by and large, are righteous people whose moral development is significantly above average–or so we’re told by The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason About Ethics, published in January.

The book, by journalism professors Lee Wilkins of the University of Missouri and Renita Coleman of Louisiana State University, discusses their recent survey of 249 journalists across the nation. A summary of their findings appeared in last fall’s issue of the Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly.

They write, “Thinking like a journalist involves moral reflection, done at a level that in most instances equals or exceeds members of other learned professions. There is some irony in this result; public opinion would not support such an assessment of journalists as sophisticated moral thinkers. As is frequently the case, conventional wisdom is not always supported by empirical evidence.”

Wilkins and Coleman sat down with journalists, asked them to describe themselves and their jobs, and quizzed them on a series of hypothetical situations in which there was no clear course of action. Some of these situations were journalistic, some weren’t. What the journalists decided should be done was less important than the reasons they gave for their decisions: for instance, choosing to not run a story based on the harm it might do outweighed not running it because some readers might cancel their subscriptions.

Journalists were given a “P score,” which measured the percentage of the time they were guided by “universal ethical principles.” Their average score was 48.68–placing them well behind seminarians and philosophers and slightly behind doctors and medical students. Yet journalists were ahead of every other group Wilkins and Coleman found P scores for. In descending order they were dental students, nurses, graduate students, undergrads, accounting students, veterinary students, enlisted navy men, orthopedic surgeons, adults in general, business professionals, business students, high school students, and prison inmates. At rock bottom, with a P score of 20.0, were junior high school students.

Unsurprisingly, Wilkins and Coleman tell us that “journalists in this study did significantly better on dilemmas in their field than other types of ethical problems.” Those dilemmas are the ones they study in J school, chew over in bars, and learn about from experience. The authors found that moral development advances with age, education, and on-the-job autonomy, and that investigative reporters are more reflective than average reporters. “It has been shown,” they write, “that investigative reporters make moral decisions regarding wrongdoing then abandon objectivity to push for the public good, serve as moral judges, and deal with ethical issues more than other types of reporters.”

In other words, they act on their own authority. The two most interesting correlations Wilkins and Coleman brought out were these: “For every one-point increase in religiosity, there was nearly a two-point decline in moral development scores. . . . For every one-point increase in importance of the law, there was nearly a two-point decrease in moral development scores.”

Wilkins and Coleman are suggesting that people who leave the big decisions to a higher authority are less morally developed. Reviewing past studies of other fields, the authors write that “religion has been positively correlated with moral development to a point. More fundamental or conservative beliefs are correlated with lower levels of moral development. Some theorize that a higher ethical orientation requires critical reasoning that may be opposed to fundamental religious beliefs.”

One other result: the study found broadcast journalists to be just as ethical as print journalists, despite “professional opinion” to the contrary.

Wilkins and Coleman were examining how journalists think about what they do, not what they do after they’re done thinking. “The disconnect between attitudes and behavior is well documented,” they write. I asked Wilkins if the journalistic disconnect might be greater than in some other fields. “I don’t think so at all,” she said. “We’re all people.”

How to Unshake a Shake-up

When Jeff Bailey resigned Friday as editor of Crain’s Chicago Business he told his staff it was because he wasn’t clicking with his publisher. “David [Blake] and I didn’t get along well enough to be a team,” the Tribune reported him saying, “and I felt there should be a team at a place that was changing that dramatically.”

But Bailey didn’t click with a lot of people. Blake–who wouldn’t comment on Bailey’s departure–simply might have been one critic Bailey couldn’t ignore. And if Blake was unhappy, we can assume his boss was too. That’s Gloria Scoby, the Crain Communications senior vice president and group publisher who originally was Bailey’s champion.

What Crain Communications wanted then–when Bailey, an outsider, succeeded Robert Reed as editor 15 months ago–was a paper that was a little noisier, a little edgier, a little more colorful and unpredictable. “There are going to be evolutionary changes in the paper,” Blake told me then, “and what can be loosely called lifestyle coverage is a piece of that.”

Reed was a hard-news guy. Scoops and in-depth reporting were a Crain’s tradition, and if Crain Communications wanted a change it needed an editor who’d be comfortable making it. So Reed resigned. There was talk of a nationwide search, but Bailey approached Crain’s from the Wall Street Journal, where he’d been a bureau chief and written a column on small business, and got the job. In his 15 months he did what he was brought in to do, maybe to a fault.

There are a couple of new sections–Focus: Finance and the Business of Life, which is industrial-strength lifestyle. Stories that start on the inside news pages, roughly pages two through eight, now end there. “It’s breezier to look at, more USA Today in the tightness of its stories,” says a longtime reader, a PR exec for major corporations who asked for anonymity. “It’s a breezier, easier read, which is probably aiming for a younger set of readers, younger businesspeople.”

He’s not one of them. “I don’t read it as much as I did a year and a half ago,” he says. “I don’t see any breaking news in it, no thought pieces. I don’t think CEOs are reading it. But they’ve done a great job of focusing on younger readers. It’s more aimed at ‘What do I, as a young businessperson, need to know to kind of get me ahead?'”

Crain’s claims circulation has stayed steady at about 50,000. That means the CEOs, CFOs, and COOs–whom the longtime reader admits were dropping away before Bailey came aboard–are being replaced by young readers, validating the changes Bailey was brought in to make. But Crain’s is no longer the place where the who’s who reads what’s what.

“Outside of the first three or four pages, it’s clearly a much better paper,” says someone still at Crain’s. “But good people got pushed out. Some corporate sensibilities got stepped on. This is just one of those unfortunate episodes where somebody has to come in and say whoa.”

Decades of experience were lost as senior editorial employees resigned because they didn’t want to work for Bailey. They complained about long weekends at the office, micromanagement, and insufferability. One of Bailey’s changes was to take reporters off their beats periodically so they could spend a week working for the Internet editor.

That was a good idea. The magazine’s strength today isn’t its front or back but its daily e-mailed business news, a “premium” service it charges extra for. CEOs do read that. The Web site has 125,000 registered users. “The online thing has supplanted the paper for a lot of people,” the longtime reader says. “If I get their headlines on it I don’t have to read the paper as carefully. I think their online is a brilliant service. I see more breaking news there than in any local medium.”

There isn’t a paper that doesn’t wonder how to coexist with its own Web presence. Shorter, fluffier news in print is one way to go when the hard news won’t hold for the next edition. David Snyder, Reed’s fondly remembered predecessor, got the Crain’s Web site up and running, and now that he’s returned from the post of associate publisher to be interim editor, he has to juggle print and pixels again. He’s expected to reassert the dedication of Crain’s to hard news and scoops. But after that?

News Bite

“Both the book and the Johnny Depp movie version of ‘Fear and Loathing’ begin with an epigraph from actor Samuel Johnson about the perils of alcohol: ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.'” –Clarence Page, in the February 23 Tribune

From Johnson, as passed on to us by his old vaudeville partner, Boswell.