Journalists Tackle Tough Questions on Ethics

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Some years ago I was a member of the Pulitzer Prize board that awarded a Pulitzer to Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke.

She had written movingly and dramatically about "Jimmy's World," the life of a child drug addict in one of Washington's sleazier districts.

The board voted for her story after an impassioned plea on its behalf by one board member, and a just-as-impassioned charge by the same board member that we white, middle-class American editors were out of touch with conditions that prevailed in the nation's ghettoes.

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The story read beautifully. We awarded it a Pulitzer Prize. But there was a problem: It wasn't true. The reporter had made it up. When Washington Post editors later began to have doubts about the story and asked Ms. Cooke to show them where "Jimmy" lived and to introduce them to him, Cooke couldn't do it. She finally broke down and admitted she had fabricated the whole thing. The Post uncovered its own embarrassing scam and honorably returned the Pulitzer Prize. Cooke, of course, left the paper.

Recently, Louisiana State University's journalism school polled news media executives across the country about how they would handle plagiarism or a fabricated news story. I'm happy to say nearly all of them agreed that a journalist guilty of such transgression should be fired.

That's fairly clean cut. Unfortunately, they were less emphatic on a number of other ethical questions confronting journalists. That's too bad, because while hundreds of journalists across the country are covering their beats with integrity, some highly questionable ethical actions by a few are undermining public confidence in the profession.

Not all ethical dilemmas are resolved by simple formulas. I sympathize with news executives who, in the LSU poll, were split almost evenly on whether The Washington Post and The New York Times should have published the Unabomber's manifesto. That's a tough one. The writer of the manifesto agreed to stop killing people if it was published. The argument for publication is that if the writer were sincere, it might stop the murders. But it also might encourage others to make similar demands.

At the same time, I was saddened by the reaction of news media executives to a number of other ethical questions.

One was whether journalists can quote from conversations "overheard" on Internet discussion groups without seeking permission. About half thought that was permissible. The other half raised the right questions: How do they know the quote came from the person to whom it was attributed? What about the background and credibility of the person being quoted? And should such members-only discussion groups be treated as private, as they are in telephone conversations, or is the Internet a public forum?

Another issue was whether publications should require writers of letters to the editor to sign their names. To my surprise, the executives queried again were divided almost evenly on this. The issue sparked debate when Adm. Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, US chief of naval operations, committed suicide last year following the publication of an unsigned letter to the editor attacking the admiral's reputation.

To me, this issue is clear-cut. The accused is entitled to know who the accuser is. All letters to the editor must be signed and the signature must be verifiable. Except in rare cases, the signature should be published. Such cases might include those where the letter-writer had suffered tragic personal harm, i.e. a woman who had been raped, or a whistle-blower revealing bribery who might, as a result of the publicity, get fired. But even in these cases, the editor should know the identity of the letter-writer before deciding to withhold it from publication.

Finally, the news media executives tackled the question of whether journalists should accept speaker fees for talking to groups that they cover, or might cover, as a part of their jobs. Happily, most of those polled said journalists should not accept fees that could result in conflicts of interest.

The issue goes beyond conflict-of-interest in specific situations. News media executives should address the problem of journalists-turned-entertainers. There is a problem of erstwhile reporters hosting TV "news magazines" that are more titillation and trivia than news. These so-called journalistic talk shows often contain more shouting - and sometimes screaming - than talking. Such confrontations between well-known journalists often are carefully rehearsed For some it may provide entertainment; for few does it provide enlightenment.

At a time when the public is questioning the credibility of the press, media executives should take a tough stand on eroding ethics and taste.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

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