News Corp. announces new code of ethics. Will it make a difference?

In response to the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed News Corp.'s News of the World, founder Rupert Murdoch said his media empire would have a new code of ethics. It could help – if managers are serious about enforcing the rules, media experts say.

Lewis Whyld/AP
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch leaves his London residence Wednesday, the day after he addressed a committee of British Parliament.

Fallout from the ongoing News Corp. phone-hacking scandal in Britain now includes a promise from company founder Rupert Murdoch to usher in a new era of ethics. The announcement came late Tuesday in a letter to all employees.

Such promises are both expected and necessary in the wake of any ethical breach by a media outlet and an important first step to regaining public trust, say experts. What will matter now is how serious Murdoch and his deputies are about enforcing them and keeping them up to date.

“Most newsrooms are in a constant process of updating and revising their codes of behavior, if for no other reason than to keep them abreast of changes in the media landscape,” says Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics, reporting, and writing at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.

For example, just a week ago, the Associated Press updated and reissued new guidelines on how reporters should use social media.

Mr. Murdoch’s plan is a good start, agrees Ronald Hanser, president of the public-relations firm, Hanser and Associates, in an e-mail. But News Corp.'s “new standards” will hardly be groundbreaking for the industry. "I see no need for other media in North America to change journalistic codes," he says.

By contrast, Murdoch's son, James, told British Parliament on Tuesday that News Corp. does need to “think more forcefully and thoughtfully about our journalistic ethics.”

The real question, say media watchers, is what impact a new set of codes will actually have.

Media reports about the allegations against News Corp. suggest that the standards "can only go up,” says Elizabeth Mehren, journalism professor at Boston University, by e-mail.

Communicating these new standards is one step, she says, “but it will be interesting to see what kind of enforcement measures Murdoch and his staff are talking about, and how exactly they intend to put them into action.”

Requests for comment on the proposed News Corp. codes received no response from both The Wall Street journal and Fox News Channel, two News Corp.-owned media outlets. Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a publicly published code of ethics, one considered by many to be among the strictest in the industry. The company was taken over in 2007 by News Corp.

History shows that a scandal can propel valuable housecleaning and industrywide progress, says Ms. McBride.

In 2003, The New York Times found itself embroiled in a front-page scandal over plagiarism and fabrication charges regarding the work of staff reporter Jayson Blair. In response, the paper undertook a thorough review of its ethical policies and made significant changes, McBride says. This self-searching triggered in-house examinations at small and large newspapers all over the country, she adds.

When it comes to a sustained cultural shift, as may be needed within segments of the News Corp. empire, long-term follow-through is the key to genuine change, notes McBride.

“There has to be a continual reinforcement process from middle and top managers on down,” she says, including such things as “finding daily teachable moments during the reporting and editing process.”

Again, she adds, The New York Times followed up with ongoing training to solidify the new standards.

Former CBS newsman Larry Kane, who has now turned his hand to writing fiction (“Death by Deadline”), vouches for the value of sustained follow-through.

The top CBS brass brought what they called “the blue book,” or its code of ethics, to life in a variety of ways. “We did a lot of mock situations,” he says, including potentially tricky ethical decisions that “really clarified what the codes mean in practice, not just in a little book.”

Note: A list of news organizations' ethics policies can be found at the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

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