The Preamble to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) reads, “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”
Since I taught courses in broadcast journalism throughout my twenty-plus years as a college professor I concur with the thoughts of this paragraph. I only wish it were more widely practiced by journalists in America today.
The SPJ declares that four principles make up the foundation of ethical journalism. The first of those principles is “Seek Truth and Report It.” Among the eighteen precepts the Code lists under that principle are these five that say journalists should:
- Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
- Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
- Support the open and civil exchanges of views, even views they find repugnant.
- Label advocacy and commentary.
- Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.
I imagine that I am more sensitive than most to the advocacy and commentary that is presented as news in the mainstream media because I took points off when my students committed that offense.
Many journalists attempt to abide by these precepts, yet when reading the points above, most people can name stories they remember when journalists took facts out of context, used secret sources, refused to provide both sides because they found one side “repugnant,” or distorted facts. The first one that comes to my mind is the pictures of illegal immigrants held in “awful” fenced enclosures under the Trump immigration policies. What journalists failed to report was that the pictures had been taken during the Obama presidency, but few news outlets would report that.
Bias in journalism existed long before the Trump years. In 1969, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne died when a reportedly intoxicated Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge – on a road not on the way to where they were supposedly going – and landed upside down in Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy got out of the car and walked home. Kopechne drowned. Kennedy did not notify authorities until the next day. Many news outlets gave much less coverage to the incident than they might have with another politician, in part because the media had built up the Kennedy clan as “American Royalty” and their image “must be protected.”
However, there was an incident shortly after the accident when one major newspaper printed a photo of Senator Kennedy walking with a young woman half his age. The caption read, “Senator Kennedy and an unidentified woman leave his private plane.” A different newspaper printed an uncropped version of the photo showing four men and two women with the Senator. The caption read, “Senator Kennedy and his aides arrived in his private plane.” Regardless of the motives of the editors or what anyone thinks of the Kennedys, one of those photos was dishonest because the way it was cropped left a dishonest impression with the readers.
In 1998, Professor Paul Lester of the California State University, Fullerton, and author of “Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach wrote, “It is actually a positive occurrence for the public to lose its naïve view of the truth in photographs. Critical thinking is the result. In no other profession are the complaints about its practices made so public as in journalism. Consequently, the public learns to question what they see and read in all media….” Unfortunately, our schools and colleges are not producing graduates who have critical thinking skills. The public have not learned to question what they see and read. In this matter, ignorance is not bliss; it is a disaster.
In a 2001 New York Times interview, producer and writer Andrew Niccol said, “It’s gotten to the point that our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it.” If that was the case twenty years ago, it is much worse in today’s digital age where manipulation is as easy as making a meme. Be wise. Be wary. Check multiple sources that present multiple viewpoints. That is the only way to get close to the truth.
Steve “Doc” Troxel, Ph.D.