Ethics made simple

Ethics code Temple

The news business seems to get more complicated all the time. Journalists are expected to work faster, file more often and serve more outlets. With less time to think, mistakes can happen and errors can be costly. News outlets lose credibility; journalists can lose their jobs.

The recent case involving the venerable CBS News program 60 Minutes is just the latest ethical lapse to make headlines. Reporter Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan were ordered to take a leave of absence after an internal investigation determined their story about a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, was “deficient in several respects.” Their critical error was to ignore information that should have made them doubt their key source.

If two experienced professionals can get caught in an ethical morass, how can student journalists avoid missteps? Temple University’s School of Media and Communication offers a road map in a new pocket ethics code (printable PDF) that breaks decision making into 10 steps: five dos and five don’ts.

The basics will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the SPJ Code of Ethics and the guide itself acknowledges that ethical decisions are rarely easy. But it does provide simple and highly practical explanations of what to do and what not to do. Under the heading “Do Tell the Truth,” the pamphlet offers advice that 60 Minutes would have been wise to follow.

…always report with the goal of 100 percent accuracy of all facts, quotes and ideas presented. Do not stop reporting when you are tired or bored, stop when there is nothing left to be uncovered or said.

All journalists should also pay attention to one of the don’ts: “Don’t Suffer in Silence.” The guide suggests that students ask a professor for help if they find themselves unsure of how to proceed while on assignment. I’d expand that advice to urge journalists to speak up about any ethical concerns, not just on stories they’re covering but whenever questions arise, whether in the field or in the newsroom.

It can take courage to challenge more experienced colleagues, and they won’t always listen. But I’d be willing to bet that the team at 60 Minutes wishes someone had waved a red flag vigorously enough to draw attention to the flaws in their story.


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