Journalists aren't frauds the business has fine lines

Ethics classes would help them stay on right side

July 19, 1998|By Wendell Cochran

For the past several years, my journalism ethics course has included a session called "Lying, Cheating, Stealing: Journalists on the Job."

The title was purposely hyperbolic, designed to provoke discussion about news gathering practices. Unfortunately, according to recent headlines, it might be an all-too-accurate description of how some reporters and editors practice their craft.

There's Stephen Glass, at the New Republic making up people and scenes out of whole cloth, and doing it quite well. Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith spiked her work with fictional people and quotes. Recently, CNN retracted a Vietnam nerve gas story and announced that it would create a new watchdog position to monitor the accuracy of its reports.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Enquirer repudiated a major investigation of wrongdoing at Chiquita Brands (and paid $10 million to settle a case that hadn't been filed) because the lead reporter, Mike Gallagher, apparently hacked into the company's voice mail system and stole messages.

But before anyone dismisses journalists as frauds who would do anything to get a story, they should understand something about gathering news. There's never enough time or resources. No newspapers or broadcast stations that I know of have organized fact-checking departments or methods. Editors are more consumed with production, personnel and budget issues than with the content of the articles they publish. Given those circumstances, it's hardly surprising that mistakes get made.

Finding truth is difficult

Even under the best conditions, getting at the truth - something most journalists really try to do - is difficult. Sources lie. They duck you. They call and complain to your boss, who happens to be their best friend. Infrequently, at least in this country, they blow up your car or your office. After you've been deceived, stonewalled and threatened enough times, it's easy to start to think you need to fight back with less than pristine tactics. In Cincinnati, Gallagher apparently believed his revelations about Chiquita's alleged wrongdoing in Central America were so important that they justified extreme measures.

But the hardest task facing a reporter is not actually acquiring information - it's understanding and interpreting what they've gathered.

CNN retracted its June 7 report after a CNN-requested review by media attorney Floyd Abrams, who concluded that the reporters and producers became convinced that their story was true. "The CNN journalists involved in this project believed in every word they wrote. If anything, the serious flaws in the broadcast that we identify in this report may stem from the depths of those beliefs and the degree to which the journalists discounted contrary information they received precisely because they were so firmly persuaded that what they were broadcasting was true," Abrams wrote. This is a classic mistake in analysis, one that many scientists, lawyers, detectives and CIA analysts have made much to their chagrin.

In retrospect, perhaps Abrams is right that CNN should not have relied on 86-year-old Thomas Moorer, whom other reporters, including some at CNN, have stopped using because they consider him a bit doddering. Moorer, the former chief of naval operations, and the highest-ranking officer quoted by CNN, never confirmed that nerve agent was used. But he also never said, unequivocally, that it was not.

It's unclear why journalists and news executives place so little emphasis on training reporters and editors to recognize and deal with ethical issues. For example, in the Food Lion case, ABC essentially admitted that it has no policy on the use of hidden cameras.

Yet it is not as if "everyone knows" the rules. Many journalism schools, mine included, sadly, do not require an ethics course and news organizations pay little attention to ethics training.

Making ethics a priority

At a recent seminar, I asked a group of Virginia editors how many of their newsrooms had conducted any type of formal ethics discussion in the past two years. Only a few hands went up, and most of those were from a single organization where the top editor has made ethics issues a priority. Unlike doctors and lawyers, and even insurance agents and real estate people, there are no required continuing education courses. Too few news organizations use the resources of the Poynter Institute, universities and other outside groups to provide training. Egged on by their lawyers, news executives have resisted all but the mildest ethics codes. Lawyers see the codes as making it harder to defend lawsuits. I once had a lawyer say in a public debate that any ethics training, which he advised against, should be done by lawyers, who could claim attorney-client privilege to avoid disclosing what was said.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the recent episodes is the publicity they've been given by news organizations. The Cincinnati Enquirer published a front page apology; CNN put Abrams' full report on its World Wide Web site and devoted a good deal of air time to its retraction of the nerve gas story. These confessions go against a long-held policy of not airing dirty linen in public, and are a good thing. Unfortunately, the tenor of all the publicity has been to cast the news organization as a victim of bad, even wicked reporters. A better move would be a concerted effort to put in place policies, practices and training designed to prevent recurrences. CNN, to its credit, is trying. Others should follow the example.

Wendell Cochran, an award-winning reporter, teaches journalism at American University in Washington.

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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