CONFLICTED INTERESTS, CONTESTED TERRAIN:
JOURNALISM ETHICS CODES THEN AND NOW
The authors of the book Good Work (Gardner 2001) see tensions within
professions as an opportunity to align professional aspirations with the
enduring values of a particular domain. Indeed, it is when enduring values
appear out of joint with contemporary expectations that professions have
the opportunity to grow -- although not without struggle. Working almost
exclusively from the domain of psychology, the authors pinpoint a
professional struggle over core values that will define and direct
journalism in the new century.
This paper joins a theory of culture and history with the insights of Good
Work. By analyzing ethics codes, a professional statement of what
constitutes good work, from different eras, this essay links codes to a
theory of culture and history. It considers two early codes, the 1923
American Society of Newspaper Editors code and the American Newspaper Guild
code of 1934. It briefly reviews scholarship surrounding codes of ethics
and examines the latest New York Times ethics code in light of
philosophical theory. The paper concludes by noting that the professional
tensions outlined in Good Work are reified in the Times code -- and that
history and culture may be less supportive of a positive outcome of this
struggle over values than the insights of psychology might suggest.
This study of ethics codes is framed from a cultural materialist
perspective that considers culture a "constitutive social process"
(Williams 1977/1988, 19), the lived texture of an active and evolving
social order. It is in experience, "the domain of the lived" (Hall 1989,
26), where consciousness and conditions intersect, that all practices are
shaped and a cultural totality is created within a historical process.
Culture encompasses common meanings, both known interpretations and new
observations; it is the product of an entire society and is also created
and continually remade by its individual members. Raymond Williams suggests
that any understanding of culture must begin with a consideration of
language. Rejecting the synchronic stress of a structuralist model that
views language as the creation of arbitrary signs reproduced within groups,
Williams sees language as a dynamic and continuous social process that is a
necessary part of human self-creation.
Ongoing relations occur within a historical context, where language
frequently takes on the "contradictory and conflict-ridden social history"
(Williams 1981, 176) of a specific culture. Language is a socially shared,
reciprocal activity, where meanings are embedded in active and ongoing
relations within a specific historical context. Viewing language as an
element of material social practice, Williams echoes both Mikhail Bakhtin
and Antonio Gramsci in his fashioning of language as part of the
dialectical process: "a persistent kind of creation and re-creation: a
dynamic presence and a constant regenerative process" (Williams 1977/1988,
31). From this perspective, underlying differences in word usage and
understanding often illustrate historically specific class-based social,
economic, and political experiences.
Differentiating spoken words from written notations, Williams sees written
language as a socially based form of material production. It is the process
of creation, the act of composition and communication, within specific
material and historical conditions that is significant. All written notions
are considered cultural practices, part of an ongoing social process that
is produced by a specific society, in a particular historical time, under
distinct political and economic conditions. Rejecting a naοve bourgeois
conception of the writer as a neutral agent, "free of ideology," who
chooses to acquire particular positions, values, and commitments, Williams
maintains that no writer, in the absolute sense, is actually free. Before
any possibility of choice exists, each person is shaped by his or her
native language. Born into a language shared with others, each person
writes from inherited forms, commissioned by dominant institutions, based
on pressures to think, feel, and write a particular way. Williams suggests
that this cultural heritage runs deep and constitutes "our normal ways of
living in the world, our normal ways of seeing the world" (Williams 1989,
85). Ultimately, cultural materialists consider all writing socially
determined; it is an aligned process of composition, the interaction
between the process of writing and the conditions of its production.
For cultural materialists, journalism codes of ethics may be seen as
cultural practices existing within an ongoing social process. Ethics codes
are explicit forms of practical communication, created in a historically
specific society and produced under particular social, economic, and
political conditions. From this perspective an analysis of ethics codes
should consider the specific context surrounding the creation of the codes
as well as the actual issues and concepts addressed in the codes. In
addition, it is important to consider aspects of journalistic behavior that
are exempt from these codes, because elements that are missing that a
person might reasonably expect to see included in a code may also provide
insights into the larger issues associated with the incorporation of
specific journalistic ethics codes.
As material social practices, ethics codes provide formal expressions of
historically specific relationships that may help to articulate a deeper
understanding of contemporary conditions of journalism as well as the lived
realities of the relationship between media and American society. Yet
Williams suggests that ironically codes also imply that somewhere a
completely understandable, or what he terms "in clear" message of the
relationship exists (Williams 1977/1988, 169). In other words, in
formalizing the duties and responsibilities of journalists, ethics codes
may actually obscure that very relationship.
Journalism of the 1920s and 1930s reflected a period of social conflict and
many newspapers emphasized entertainment, sex, and crime. Known as the time
of "Jazz Journalism," during this era half-size newspapers called tabloids
that focused on human sentiment, sports, and sensationalism became
In his 1937 history of daily newspapers in the United States, Alfred
McClung Lee defines ethics codes as attempts by editors and other
professionals to "rationalize" and "idealize" their journalistic practices
(Lee 1937, 2). Lee differentiates ethics codes from editorial policy
suggesting that editorial policy is the actual working principles that
journalists use in their daily work which influences the pre-publication
treatment of news as well as how sources of information are utilized.
The development of the first journalistic codes of ethics were a response
to growing public disillusionment with the press especially following its
coverage of World War I. Upton Sinclair's scathing indictment of
journalism, The Brass Check, published in 1920, was a best seller and
liberal magazines like the Nation and the New Republic campaigned for
accuracy and balance in news coverage. Responding to public
dissatisfaction with daily newspapers, editors formed the American Society
of Newspaper Editors (A.S.N.E.) in 1922 and set out to maintain the rights
and dignity of the profession and try to establish ethical standards for
journalistic conduct (Lee 1937, 653). In April 1923, the A.S.N.E. adopted
seven "Canons of Journalism" which set forth ethical practices based on
responsibility, freedom of the press, independence, sincerity,
truthfulness, accuracy, impartiality, fair play and decency.
The "Canons of Journalism" are framed from a social responsibility
perspective that maintains the public welfare is a fundamental concern of
daily journalism. Freedom of the press is considered a "vital right" of
public interest that must be guarded and protected. Newspapers should
remain independent from private interests that are "contrary to the general
welfare." Defining honest journalism as truthful, accurate, sincere,
independent, and unpartisan, the code warns about the use of "private
sources" that are unwilling to go on the record and offer information that
cannot be verified. Suggesting that news stories should be bias free, the
A.S.N.E. code does however, exempt "special articles," news stories and
columns that are clearly advocacy or that are signed by the writer.
Invasions of privacy should be avoided unless the public right warrants
such intrusion and editors are counseled to refrain from publishing
unofficial charges "affecting reputation or moral character" without giving
the person the opportunity to defend him/herself. Responding to charges of
insincerity in the media, the code suggests that a deliberate focus on
"base conduct" will only worsen the reputation of the press and suggests
that newspapers limit their reportage of crime and vice.
The tone of this code is optimistic and seems to suggest that if
newspapers follow the seven "Canons of Journalism" that the field will
become more professional and public support will grow. The language used is
temperate and encourages the adherence of its members rather than on
insisting on their devotion to the code. Realizing that the organization
does not have the authority to enforce the "Canons of Journalism," the code
hopes that newspapers who pander to "vicious interests" will encounter
public disapproval and be considered less professional than newspapers that
focus on accurate and bias free news coverage.
Amid hearings and protests against the inequities of the daily newspaper
section of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, that was strongly
influenced by members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors,
editorial workers gathered at the home New York World Telegram columnist
Heywood Broun and began planning a national organization of journalists.
Officially founded in Washington D.C. on December 15, 1933, early goals of
the American Newspaper Guild (A.N.G.) were to elevate the ethical and
professional standards of print journalism and to improve the working
conditions of its members through collective bargaining. At the first
annual American Newspaper Guild convention, held June 5-8, 1934 in St.
Paul, Guild members approved a code of ethics and passed a freedom of
conscience resolution that may be seen to help provide necessary context
for this ethics code.
The freedom of conscience resolution considers freedom of the press the
public's right and journalist's responsibility rather than a privilege of
owners and publishers to "exploit." It suggests that the "high calling" of
journalism has been tarnished because newsworkers have been pressured by
their employers to serve special interests rather than the public
good. Ultimately the resolution challenges members of the guild to frame
their work based on a mission of social responsibility and to strive for
"integrity" in their reportage of news and to refuse to distort or suppress
Like the earlier seven "Canons of Journalism," the A.N.G. code of ethics is
also framed from a social responsibility perspective and reflects the
idealism of many of the founding members of the Guild. The code insists
that editorial workers respect the rights of individuals and groups by
crafting factual and fair news reports that accurately represent an
"unbiased" account of the news. Warning newsworkers to resist being
influenced by "political, economic, social, racial or religious
prejudices," the code reminds journalists that all citizens are judged
equal before the law and insists that all individuals be presumed innocent
until they are convicted of a crime.
Conflict of interest is construed narrowly in the American Newspaper Guild
code. Reporters are told that confidential sources are never to be
compromised, even if an editorial worker changes jobs. Journalists are
counseled that the sanctity of source relationship is a fundamental aspect
of journalism and that they should refuse to reveal confidential sources of
information to any court or to legal or investigative groups or
organizations. The code also condemns the practice of editorial workers
accepting money for publicity work that may prejudice their craft as "fair"
reporters and finds the "acceptance by sports editors and writers of money
from promoters of alleged sporting events" particularly egregious.
Responding to early twentieth century journalistic practices that
encouraged reporters not to cover Sacred Cows, that is influential people
and issues contrary to newspaper policy, the code suggests Guild members
should work with editors and publishers "to curb the suppression of
legitimate news concerning 'privileged' persons or groups, including
advertisers, commercial powers and friends of newspapermen." Concerned that
business pressures were putting undue stress on newsrooms regarding the
suppression of sensitive news, the code also suggests that the news be
edited "exclusively" in the newsrooms rather than in the business offices
of daily newspapers.
The balance of power definitely resides with the public interest in this
code. Editorial workers are seen as employees who have a moral
responsibility to craft accurate and unbiased news accounts and are
accountable to the public. Reporters are expected to conduct themselves
honorably and independently, in the newsroom and in public and should not
attempt to "curry favor" with any other person. Again, this part of the
code reflects an early twentieth century practice in which some newspaper
editors and publishers encouraged editorial workers to "use influence with
officials in matters other than the gathering of news."
The tone and the language used in crafting the 1934 American Newspaper
Guild code is straightforward and dogmatic with few modifiers to soften the
intended meaning. Reporters are given little room for exceptions or
extenuating conditions or compromise actions. Such an unbending position is
nicely illustrated in the code's designation of publicity as antithetical
to news. The code specifically condemns the practice of running "publicity
in the news columns in the guise of news matter" and finds the idea of
political writers getting paid to write publicity particularly wrong.
Scholarship of codes tends to lag behind the development of codes, but it,
too, notes the fault lines along which a profession develops. The first
journalism ethics codes reflected concerns of the Progressive Era and
muckraking journalism. In this era, conflict of interest was framed as
propaganda vs. the public welfare, another hallmark of Progressive
thinking. Since codes of journalistic ethics serve as one marker for a
profession, "the domain of the lived" at a particular historic time,
scholarly study of codes can provide insight into the specific stresses and
strains on the profession. Thus, scholarly publications about codes and
ethics initially characterized the newspaper as having unequaled "force" in
the contemporary world (Tablado 1926, 1).
In the 1930s and 1940s, as the profession reacted to World War I and the
ethical lapses surrounding Teapot Dome, scholarship, too, focused on issues
of balance and journalistic impartiality. Sensationalism and bias were the
focus of several studies (Kingsbury and Hart, 1933a, 1933b, 1934a, 1934b).
Other studies explored stereotypical headlines of crime (Baskette 1947),
publication of what today would have been considered private facts about
mental health as well as a confession (Kobre 1936), general pre-trial
publicity (Perry 1938), the role of the media in war (Price 1943), and the
impact of competition (Bird 1944) and the "scoop" mentality (Ebon 1945).
Conflict of interest remained central, as is illustrated in the following
It is difficult to understand why newspaper men seem to regard themselves
immune to the laws of public opinion which other professions acknowledge
and respect. No judge on the bench, sitting on important cases involving
nice questions of judgment on the meaning of the law, would ever imagine
for a moment that his reputation could survive if he habitually accepted,
from litigants, gratuities and favors and preferential
treatment. Newspapers do not differ greatly from the bench (Wiggins 1944,
Law and ethics were confounded in scholarship of this era (Siebert 1946;
Pember 1976; Thayer 1947; Davis 1953). However, in 1961 Journalism
Quarterly printed what was arguably its first article to address an issue
of practice -- staged photographs -- and frame it as an ethical problem
(Wilcox 1961). Although the study found that public opinion differed from
journalistic decisions, codes were not mentioned except to note a lack of
professional agreement. Thus, the notion of a contradictory and
conflict-ridden social history pervades academic analysis of codes or
fragments of them.
It was not until the early 1980s that codes themselves became the focus of
serious scholarship. The first issue of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics
was devoted to codes. The descriptive work found that about six in ten news
organizations surveyed had written codes -- most initially written within
the previous 20 years and reviewed within the past five (Davenport and
Izard 1985). Most codes were imposed by management -- an element that
continues to characterize code development and which is meaningful in a
consideration of the "domain of the lived". The majority of the codes dealt
with an expanded notion of conflict of interest -- particularly whether
journalists could participate in political activities of various sorts
(exclusive of voting) and whether and how journalists could earn additional
income. Emerging issues included financial conflicts of interest,
conflicts of interest involving a spouse, family members or friends, and
that management often was viewed as having different obligations from
The issues of enforcement and impact also were explored. Bukrow
(1985/1986) found limited support among members of the Society of
Professional Journalists for code enforcement within the organization
itself. Bukrow concluded that journalistic faith in ethics codes was
breaking down at the very time the public was seriously questioning the
profession's ethics. Christians (1985/1986) noted that codes fulfill the
function of moral sanction among peers, and that "enforced codes
characterized by such specific guidelines can serve journalism
professionals on the minimum level of what Henry Aiken labels rule
obedience" (19). Christians also linked code enforcement with media
accountability and the preservation of the public trust in the profession
(as noted in the 1973 Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of
Ethics). He also was among the first scholars to decouple legal reasoning,
particularly regarding the First Amendment, from codes of ethics as moral
Finally, and significantly, scholars debated whether codes are effective
exemplars of professional behavior. Elliott (1985/1986) suggested that
codes most frequently codified "usual practice" but that they also could
provide journalists with an understanding of minimally appropriate
professional behavior and an articulation of professional ideals. This
philosophical work tents to not imbed codes in a larger historical and
Most recently, philosophical examinations have been followed by empirical
work. Black and Barney (1985/1986) linked codes to stages of moral
development, arguing that they work well for individuals whose behavior
could be influenced by threat of punishment, reward, interpersonal accord,
or rules of law and duty. Boeyink (1994) examined how codes of ethics were
implemented in three newsrooms, concluding that the contents of the code
were not as essential as whether management supported a discussion of
ethical issues and whether those understandings permeated the staff. In a
study that compared complaints to the national news council with the
standards articulated in four different ethics codes, two for print and two
for broadcast, Braman (1988) found that the reading and viewing public
tended to place a somewhat different emphasis on elements of media behavior
than did journalists themselves, at least in their written
codes. Journalists tended to be proactive in terms of the watchdog role of
the press, the public tended to place more emphasis on boundaries and
tempering media activities. The public also asked that the media take
special care when in a position of monopoly, and appeared uncomfortable
with journalistic facts that questioned those in authority. This tension
between public expectation and journalistic practice became part of the
social process of the development of codes during the decade of the 1990s.
This notion of multiple influences on journalistic behavior was confirmed
by scholars. Pritchard and Morgan (1989) found that "scholars and
practitioners err if they assume that the promulgation of formal norms such
as ethics codes directly influences journalistic behavior...formal norms
are only one ingredient in a rich stew." The study suggested that the
effect of codes is symbolic, an outward sign of the creation of a
professional culture at a specific time in history.
In the most recent work, the move in the newest SPJ code toward
accountability, has been analyzed (Glasser and Ettema 2002). "In a
remarkable departure from earlier versions, the recently revised code of
ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) concludes with a
section that calls on journalists to 'Be accountable'""'to their readers,
listeners, viewers and each other.'" Glasser and Ettema note that in the
unprecedented commitment to accountability, the code's authors want to
shift the code itself away from a set of practices toward professional
conduct which is validated through open and public debate.
In some ways, scholarship about codes has been disjointed and
sporadic. However, there are some important and consistent
findings. 1. Over time, codes have been perceived as within the domain
of ethics and moral philosophy as opposed to law and precedent. This is
important, because ethical thinking is generally stable, while professional
practice itself changes. 2. Codes themselves can articulate both a set of
rules for "normal journalistic practice" as well as an inspiration to the
highest ideals in the profession. 3. The role and nature of management's
response to developing codes and their application to owners as well as
workers has been the focus of both passionate discussion and professional
silence; 4. Whether and how journalists and their news organizations
should be accountable for code violations is sometimes discussed, but with
no resolution. In this sense, scholarship about codes and ethics has
outlined the shape of the professional debate, including the areas most
likely in contention. Certainly one of those has been conflicts of
interest, and a brief review of philosophical thinking on the issue is in
order before turning to analysis of a contemporary code.
Moral philosophy asserts that professionals generally acquire more
obligations by virtue of their professional role and standing within
various cultures. It is those roles that bind them to higher standards
than those expected of "non-professionals". For example, human beings in
general have a duty "not to harm," but the physicians' duty to avoid pain
and suffering is heightened. Philosophy grants professionals heightened
standing by grounding professional obligation in the common social good, a
professional duty that is commonly mentioned in many media codes of ethics.
In general, then, conflict of interest can be defined as those conflicts
that arise from performance within a professional role. Often, such
conflicts manifest themselves as a conflict between what is morally
expected of the average person and what is expected of that same person
functioning in a professional role. For example, a parent might ask a
child to tell the truth about a minor infraction; if that parent is a
defense attorney working for a client, urging the client to tell the truth
may not be the best professional advice. At other times, conflicts of
interest can arise exclusively within the professional role. For example,
attorneys in large firms have specfic guidelines to follow in case one
attorney in the firm is hired by one party to litigation while another
attorney in the same firm may already represent the "opposing side." While
the foregoing is a broad definition, professional conflicts of interest
tend to cluster around the following:
Exploitation of a professional position for private advantage;
Allowing financial, collegial, social or familial loyalties, both past
and present, to interfere with professional loyalties;
Placing self interest above duties to others.
At this level, conflict of interest seems straightforward. However,
unlike many areas of professional ethics, discussion of conflict of
interest includes the notion of perception -- a tricky construct because
perception may not match reality but may still dominate how actions are
understood by others. It is entirely possible for a professional not to
have a conflict of interest as defined above but to, nevertheless, appear
to have a conflict of interest that must be accounted for in professional
performance. Take, for example, civil servants. They are legally required
never to accept a variety of tangible or intangible rewards "under
circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing
the performance of his government duties" (Gorlin 1986, 197). While buying
the local director of social services a $10 lunch may not create an actual
conflict of interest, it is the appearance that matters. Conflict of
interest is one of few areas of professional ethics where perception of
"reality" has equal standing in a moral sense with the actual reality. The
goal here is twofold: first, to circumscribe the sorts of influences that
can erode professional judgment, and second, to maintain the bond of trust
and authority between professionals and the larger society.
Philosophy also suggests some remedies for conflict of
interest. Disclosure is the most frequent, the rationale being that
concealment of the conflict is part of what can make it so
corrosive. However, it is considered only a partial remedy because
disclosure does not assure lack of influence. Disclosure also carries its
own risks, including a potential abandoment of privacy which most people,
in most circumstances, would strive to maintain. A second partial remedy
is a change in specific professional duties. Legislation adopted in the
wake of the Enron/Arthur Anderson scandal employed this approach;
accounting firms are no longer allowed to act as consultants -- a change of
professional duties -- to clients for whom they also serve as
auditors. Changing professional duties can help to discharge a conflict of
interest when the field of potential professionals is expansive. However,
when there are a limited number of professionals, or when the "new"
professional works in the same firm as the professional with the conflict,
changing duties can be more about appearance than actual outcome. Finally,
and from a philosophical point of view least problematic, is the option of
withdrawing from the problem and literally finding someone else. Real-life
application is not so neat. Withdrawing from an important assignment can
mean stalling a career. It is not easy to withdraw from love, marriage, or
parenting, despite professional obligations. In many instances, the
person with the conflict may be the most qualified professional--and hence
a partial remedy becomes the only solution.
Finally, all these remedies speak to individual actions. None speak to
the actions of role imbedded in organizations (Davis and Craft,
2000). Despite this omission, it is important to note that philosophical
thinking about conflict of interest has relatively stable over both time
and various professions. Furthermore, many professional ethics codes link
professional work with the social obligation of professionals to the larger
culture that gives them special status. It is this link between the
profession and the political -- as opposed to the economic -- culture that
has become the contested ground of journalism.
Since perception is integral to the notion of conflict of interest, and
since perception is often influenced by historic events, it is necessary to
consider some of the contemporary influences on journalism before examining
a recent code of ethics.
The decade of the 1990s certainly marked a time of historic professional
stress for journalists. Among the best documented stressors were:
The drive to maximize quarterly profit in an industry that had moved
from privately owned to publicly traded;
The conglomeration of ownership, with regulatory support, and the need
to retire corporate debt that made mergers possible;
New technologies, particularly those connected with the computer, which
established media outlets viewed as potential profit centers but that also
exploded the potential for competition from new organizations and individuals;
The erosion of audiences for traditional newspapers and broadcast networks;
The movement of women into the newsroom in significant numbers, and the
impact of two-career families on news organizations;
The escalating costs of libel insurance and the size of libel verdicts;
Some notorious breaches of professional ethics that made news of their
The focus on celebrity in American culture and the impetus such a focus
provided for both news coverage, often of the trivial, and for how the
culture viewed highly paid and promoted journalists themselves;
The blurring of news and entertainment--particularly on prime time
The sophistication with which political actors "used" the news media
for their own purposes, resulting in what some critics characterized as a
denigration of the political discourse necessary in a democratic society;
The dynamic impact of the 9/11 terrorists attacks on New York and
Washington D. C., These events pushed news organizations toward more
in-depth and politically-oriented news -- that kind that is most expensive
to produce. They also led to increasing federal regulation as epitomized
by the U.S. Patriot Act that legally constrained news organizations in ways
that had not been seen since World War II;
A continuing erosion--with some upticks--of the audiences' assessment
of media credibility.
With all of these societal pressures, it is not surprising that many news
organizations rewrote their codes of ethics during the decade. It is to
the new ethics code for the New York Times, arguably a flagship of
journalistic professionalism in the 1990s and as such certainly subject to
the historic and cultural changes of the decade, that the analysis now turns.
The New York Times published its new code of ethics in January 20003. The
focus of the lengthy document is conflict of interest, and in the first
paragraph, the Times acknowledges that perception of is part of the
issue. "The reputation of the Times rests upon such perceptions, and so do
the professional reputations of its staff member."
The new code itself has much to recommend it. It includes both general
cautions and specific examples to help with interpretation. It covers a
broad variety of actual and potential relationships, some of which -- for
example appearance on television or leaves of absence for book authorship
-- a reasonable person would suggest apply to the Times more than they
might to any other U.S. newspaper. The code is particularly detailed in
its analysis of conflicts of interests involving family members,
specifically spouses. The paper's willingness to consider spousal
relationships, which will predominantly affect women considering the
newspaper's current staffing, is certainly an acknowledgment of the
changing role of women in the workforce and the ethical issues that this
particular social change raises. The code is also forthright about the
changing mores that American journalists may face when covering news in
societies without a first amendment or where bribery or other forms of
corruption are far more acceptable than in the U.S. In this, the Times
code places it at the forefront of journalistic thinking about the
relationship between supposedly universal ethical principles and the
societal norms that govern the many cultures in which American journalists
must do their jobs.
It is important to consider who specifically is meant to follow the code.
The New York Times code itself is directed to "all the members of the news
and editorial department whose work directly affects the content of the
paper." Freelancers are included while other staff members, for example
secretaries, are not. Also not included is management and ownership, which
is crucial in the case of the Times since it remains, in part, a
family-owned newspaper. This singular omission stands in contrast, for
example, to the first American Association of Newspaper Editors code which
focused on editors and publishers and set standards for them.
The document as a whole should also be assessed. The Times refers to this
document as a code of ethics, but as indicated earlier, the focus of the
document is conflict of interest. The Times' code interprets conflicts of
interest broadly, linking conflict of interest to perception of the
newspaper's impartiality, neutrality and the integrity of its news
reports. However, there are other elements that influence the integrity of
the news reports -- for example accuracy and tough-minded evaluation of
both sources and the information that they provide -- that are not
mentioned in the code. This lack of attention to these elements of news
reports is particularly striking considering the Times recent experience
with the Won Ho Lee case, where the newspaper publicly apologized for
jumping to conclusions based on reporting that failed to adequately
question the motives of Congressional sources who initially leaked the
erroneously damaging information. Deception is treated in very specific
instances in the document, for example travel writing or restaurant and
play reviewing. However, any discussion of deception as a larger method
for news gathering is omitted. Again, this omission is noteworthy.
In contrast, the ethics code for the Society of Professional Journalists
(Black, Barony and Stele 1997) makes accuracy and fairness the first
ethical issues to receive attention and only then explores conflict of
interest. Next comes a chapter on deception, and deception is defined as a
news gathering technique -- not merely the concern of writers in particular
sections of the paper. Similarly, the SPJ code devotes attention to
diversity and photojournalism, which are not mentioned in the Times
code. The SPJ code also devotes a chapter to privacy; the Times devotes a
single sentence: "We do not inquire pointlessly into someone's personal
life." The New York Times code also does not address the organization's
responsibility to its employees--an omission that is common in ethics codes
but which leaves half of the reciprocity equation essentially blank.
Thus, the new Times code is not as broad or as specific as that of some
other news media outlets or professional news organizations. Or phrased
another way, the focus on conflict of interest leads a reader to ask why so
much of the Times' lived ethical life centers on one issue.
At one level, the need for such a focus is perfectly clear: the Times
seeks to protect is reputation as the nation's, and perhaps the world's,
preeminent news organization. The code notes that the Times "gathers
information for the benefit of its readers." The code cautions its staff
to maintain an air of "professional detachment" and requires disclosure of
relationships with newsmakers who become close: "staff members who develop
close relationships with people who might figure in coverage they
provide...must disclose those relationships to the associate managing
editor." Such disclosure, the code notes, may result in a change of
assignments. All these strictures are aimed at protecting reputation and
the perception of reputation--one of the enduring elements of philosophical
thinking about the issue.
Also in the vein of protecting journalistic reputation, staff members
are required to disclose yearly speaking fees of more than $5,000 and are
forbidden from offering endorsements or testimonials except in reviews or
other published columns. Doing any public relations work, paid or unpaid,
generally is forbidden. Staff members may not accept gifts, tickets,
discounts or other "inducements" from organizations covered by the Times,
and payment for favorable or altered coverage is specifically forbidden.
Times staff members are required not to invest in companies which
individual staff members regularly cover or edit, and they are enjoined
from speculating in the market in anticipation of news stories to be
published in the Times. The restrictions on the staff of the financial
section are more severe--they simply may not play the market and must
disclose any holdings. Similarly members of the arts staff must disclose
their art acquisitions once a year.
However, the code also recommends common sense. It notes that the Times
expects to pay the expenses of its employees but that there are some times,
for example military or scientific expeditions, where alternative financial
arrangements may not be possible. The code provides the example of a
flight aboard a corporate jet in order to obtain an interview. Staff
members may do unpaid public relations work for organizations such as a
child's school. Gifts and discounts available to the general public are
also available to the Times' staff. These elements of the code, which
appear in different areas of the document, thus seem to suggest that Times
staff members can live in a community, and to some extent function as part
of that community -- particularly where family and children are concerned
-- and still remain in compliance with the code. Here, professional
neutrality and fairness is balanced with intimate connection.
The Times is less willing to lets its employees become full participants
in community life when the issue becomes politics. Times staffers may not
give money to candidates or causes, march in support of public movements,
or appear on radio and television voicing views that go beyond those of the
paper. When a spouse of family member is involved in such activity, the
staff member must disclose the conflict and possibly recuse him or herself
from certain coverage. "The Times understands that friends and relatives
of its staff have every right to pursue full and actives lives, personally
and professionally. If restrictions are necessary, they fall on the Times
employee." And, while Times staffers are forbidden from serving on
government boards and commissions, they are allowed to help church,
libraries, fine arts groups, hobby groups, etc., with "modest fund
raising." All of these restrictions suggest that Times employees -- but
not management -- must act in such as way as to maintain reader trust about
the originality, neutrality and, to a lesser extent thoroughness, of the
news product. Certainly, the maintenance of reader trust constitutes an
important element of socially responsible journalistic behavior;
historically it is a core professional value and remains so in the most
recent Times code.
However, at a deeper level, conflict of interest as expressed in the Times
code is clearly pointed at financial survival and even prosperity. Times
staff members are not allowed to disclose confidential information about
the operations, plans or policies of the newspaper. When approached by
other journalists, staff members are obliged to funnel the question to a
top editor or the paper's corporate communication department. The only
exception is readers; here the code says staff members should respond
"openly and honestly." Outside inquiry and criticism is thus deflected, a
tactic that, were it to be adopted by the U.S. government, would be the
subject of an expose rather than listed as a "best professional practice."
More pointed still is a section of the code that deals with "journalistic
work outside the Times." Here, the code may promote a sort of ethics creep
--with Times staff members prohibited from doing freelance work that
competes with Times' content while noting that the Times sphere of
influence is larger than ever and enlarging in ways that are difficult to
accurately forecast. The Web is certainly included, as are books. But the
code also notes that the Times has begun a foray into broadcasting. Here,
the code is quite specific: "Staff members may not appear on broadcasts
that compete directly with The Times's own offerings on television or the
Internet....As the paper moves further into these new fields, it direct
competitors and clients or potential clients will undoubtedly grown in
number." Such a inclusion requires not only that Times staff members have
good grasp of what others (in this case their editors and their employer)
will perceive as a financial conflict of interest, but they must have a
good grasp on what might become a conflict of interest in the future. This
is a tall order.
These sections about the economic health and financial success of the
organization also point to one of the fault lines in the profession: the
tension between economic goals and the traditional view of journalism as a
public service. The Times code itself does not address this issue, even
though savvy employees will certainly spot it in the document. More
importantly, by including financial competition as an element of conflict
of interest in its ethics code, the Times has placed its economic health on
an equal footing with the public trust. This change in emphasis is
certainly new in light of the early codes of the American Newspaper Guild
and the American Society of Newspaper Editors as well as the Society for
Professional Journalists' much more contemporary effort. In a theoretical
sense, it is clear that the lived life of journalists must now be concerned
as never before with the economic health of the parent corporation and that
such concern has moral weight.
The previous analyses of the contemporary New York Times code as well as
early twentieth century American Society of Newspaper Editors and the
American Newspaper Guild codes seek to place the codes in their historic
context, to note how they articulate both meaning and significance around
particular issues, and to point out how such thinking can become
problematic both as historic circumstances change and as the profession
itself continues to mature.
The language of codes is not transparent, innocent or neutral; codes are
framed by specific ideological, political, and social influences that exert
preferences, pressures, and constraints. These journalism ethics codes
should be seen as elements of practical communication of U.S. society that
have been produced at historically specific times and under particular
social, political, and economic conditions.
Reflecting an era of classical realism, in which texts are thought to
represent the truth nonproblematically, the early American Newspaper Guild
and the American Society for Newspaper Editor's codes were written in a
straightforward manner that clearly delineated the public interest and the
journalists' duty. So too, the contemporary New York Times code reflects
the ongoing tension between economic realities and a social responsibility
philosophical framework of traditional American journalistic
practices. Interestingly, the authors of Good Work suggest that it is the
tension between public expectations of socially conscious journalism, the
core beliefs of the profession, and the economics of corporate
conglomerates that constitutes the central challenge of contemporary
journalism. While journalists as individuals may focus on public trust,
history and culture caution that economic competition when given moral
weight may have the capacity to overwhelm individual ideals.
Going beyond a definition of ethics codes as professional documentation of
what constitutes good work, it is possible to see codes as efforts to
"idealize" and "rationalize" specific journalistic practices. From this
perspective, the normative function of codes comes into focus. Finally, it
may helpful to consider Williams' notion that ironically codes suggest a
more complete understanding of the relationship between journalism
practices and society exists apart for the actual codes. By attempting to
codify particular relationships, Williams suggests that codes may in fact
actually obscure them. This study of ethics codes from different eras
offers insights into the culturally and historically based contexts for
these codes. But it is in the omissions, in those areas that are contested
or left unsaid, that the practice of journalism may be seen to more fully
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for the specific language of the code.
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