Return to Utopia: The resurgence of media ethics

The concept of ethics should not (but sometimes seems to) disappear after being involved in the journalism industry for a number of years. This is one of the most depressing things about the industry I’ve dedicated my life to.

Maybe this is just a naive, recent college grad wishing for the pureness and innocence of her college newsroom, but I don’t care. Everyone bashes the media for its bias, its bad coverage, its favoritism and the list goes on. It seems like a never-ending cycle. But I want to break that cycle, smash it to pieces and run over with a semi-truck for good measure.

Journalists fresh out of college, usually with experience gained from their college paper, are (in my biased opinion) the most pure, most energetic, most ethical of the bunch. They saw how things should be. They know right from wrong, ethically and morally speaking. They are always conscious of it. When something doesn’t seem quite right, they speak up.

Now, this is not to say that veteran reporters have no ethics. I know 99.9 percent of them do. But, as is always the case, it’s that .1 percent that tarnishes the hard work everyone else has accomplished.

I fear that young journalists see the unethical decisions being made, watch as superiors disregard the most basic journalist principles and they run away. They escape to safer place — perhaps public relations or even a non-media related field entirely. This has to stop.

To break the cycle, people have face the problems they see, confront them and correct them — not run away because it’s too much to handle. I want to return to a Utopian newsroom, universally speaking. I’m not running. I hope you’re not either.

Disappearing ethics a common occurence

It breaks a journalist’s heart to read about plagiarism, fabricating sources and stories and being generally unethical in the industry — regardless of how far back into your journalistic history those events fall. That’s why I could barely even generate a response other than, “WHAT?!” to a recent column on the Monroe News, where a reporter confessed to creating scenarios for stories, doing interviews for game stories BEFORE the game occurred with “we won” quotes and “we lost” quotes. Not to mention creating direct quotes from memory.

First of all, I can’t even imagine how someone could allow themselves to do any of those things, let alone write a column about it. I can’t think of a single thing a person could gain from exposing the unethical behavior of their past. There is nothing good that can come from his column, as far as I’m concerned.

You would think that most journalists have enough common sense not to do that kind of stuff. But then again, here’s an established journalist writing about his ethical blunders. Not to mention Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair.

This reporter has pretty much ruined any credibility he had and now sources, editors and future employers have a very real right to worry about the accuracy of his stories. I know I would.

Since the headline is “Journalists: Don’t do this,” maybe he wasn’t just talking about the complete and utter disregard he had for ethics. Maybe he was talking about writing the column too.

But, things like this are just one of the depressing and discouraging thing about this industry I’ve grown to love. From the moment we start out as cub reporters, we have the concepts of ethics and morals ground into our brains. But somewhere along the way, for some people at least, it seems to disappear. And that’s a damn shame.

Ethics Shouldn’t Disappear After Graduation

When I first started writing for newspapers (including my high school paper), I would constantly worry about quoting people wrong, having facts wrong or doing something unethical. I put thought into every story. Read each story to make sure I gave both (read: all) sides of an issue equal time. But somewhere along the way, it seems that worrying process disappears.

Not for me specifically, but just in general. Stories I hear from fellow journalists and things I see in various newspapers are kind of disheartening.

The number of stories printed or posted online with one source just to be the first one with the news is sad. What happened to real, in-depth reporting? What looks better to the readers, a brief with one source or an in-depth story with multiple interviews that give a good overview of the entire issue? I know that some stories can’t be much more than a brief. Those aren’t what I’m taking issue with. It’s the bigger stories, the real news gathering, that gets slighted so one newspaper can beat the other.

Editing photos to please individual readers is also absurd. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times — Don’t crop photos. Don’t flip photos. Don’t alter photos to change the message they portray. DON’T. DON’T. DON’T. Then when I hear through the grapevine that some editors request items to be photoshopped out of photos because it would embarrass the person in the photograph, I am stuck in a state of disbelief. If you’re embarrassed by something, don’t submit a photo to a media outlet, simple as that. An editorial staff shouldn’t be forced to make unethical decisions for fear of backlash from a community member.

The amount of press releases passed off as legit news items also stuns me. We had a very strict ‘no press release’ rule at my college paper, and I followed that rule like it was a religion. Sure, we used press releases as story ideas quite a bit, but to run a press release just about word-for-word never even crossed my mind. We were the content makers, the ones getting the news out to the campus, not someone who, most of the time, can’t even use AP Style correctly. The immediacy of the internet has pushed public relations to the forefront of the news business, allowing journalists to slack off and editors to essentially give away free advertising when it could use the space for original content.

I have also heard of newspapers that refuse to run corrections. When I was EIC in college, I erred on the side of caution and probably ran more corrections or clarifications than the last few editors in chief. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but I wanted to be upfront with our readers, and if we made a mistake, I wanted people to know we are aware and regretful of said mistake. Not running corrections or clarifications, to me, shows blatant disrespect to the readers. If you’re not willing to own up to your mistakes, why should readers trust anything you report in the first place? Granted, if citizens don’t read other publications covering the same issues, they would never know. But even so, that could be just as bad. Probably worse.

As much as I love this industry, there are just some stains on it that don’t seem to want to wash out. But, I will do my best to bring the most accurate, precise and engaging content to the forefront of any publication I write for — and I have no doubt that former (and current) Alestle staff members and former high school journalism friends will do the same.