Tall tales put press on ethical alert, but is that enough?

If a lawyer or a doctor had committed ethical lapses akin to those of Jayson Blair - the young reporter caught fabricating and plagiarizing stories in The New York Times recently - he might have appeared in front of a professional board and lost his credentials.

Journalism doesn't have such boards. But after Mr. Blair's violations, and those of other members of the press in recent weeks - ranging from doctoring a photo to selling information about sources to a tabloid paper - a tribunal to oversee journalists doesn't sound like a bad idea.

"What part about not making up the news didn't you understand, son?" an adjudicator might ask.

Unfortunately, most media watchers say a licensing board for journalists would never work because the Constitution prohibits any group from getting too involved in restricting a press that's meant to be free.

"It's just the nature of this beast that it can't be regulated either privately or by the government without breaching the First Amendment," says Chris Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. "What it requires instead is self policing."

Still, national and state news councils that bring together the Fourth Estate and public grievances have been tried for decades - with mixed results. Apparently, it's difficult to convince newsrooms that the tribunals offer an effective method of policing. And none of the councils make recommendations that are legally binding or mandatory. But the potential for such councils to bring the public and newsrooms together effectively is there, say some observers, and some groups still petition for a national council to be revived (the last one petered out in the early 1980s.)

Another problem with a single oversight board is deciding which code of ethics should be used. No one has been able to settle on what, beyond telling the truth, the code should include, argues Jane Kirtley, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota. "It's not like leaving a sponge in a patient during surgery. What's journalistic malpractice?" she asks.

Ms. Kirtley explains that different guidelines are supported by the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association, to name a few. Policies covering conflict of interest - such as whether journalists should allow a source to pay for lunch, or be allowed to march in antiwar demonstrations (for a political writer it might be a no-no, but what about a travel columnist?) - often vary from group to group.

Most agree on the value of self-policing, however, which is evident in the coverage of the Jayson Blair story. The papers that the 27-year-old Mr. Blair wrote for are particularly interested in restoring credibility. In perhaps the longest correction in the history of journalism, The New York Times published more than four pages last Sunday - including a story that began on the front page - outlining his mistakes. The following day, The Boston Globe wrote of its investigation into Blair's stories for that paper on its front page.

That's good, media critics say, but there's more to be done to keep such lapses from happening. They suggest closer editorial supervision, developing software that can track plagiarism, and offering more training on ethical decisionmaking.

Ultimately, though, the best remedy is the court of public opinion, say observers. People have the power to tell a news organization they don't like its ethical practices, by electing not to pay for a paper or tune in to a broadcast.

Fiascos like the Blair incident also enable the public to become better acquainted with how the press works. More people know now that it's wrong to indicate in a dateline that you visited a place if you never went there, as Blair did.

"Journalists become more accountable as the public becomes more conversant in the values of journalism," says Kelly McBride, an ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute. They become a de facto oversight board, she says, because "that's the way it's designed in the Constitution."

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