Journalism: How Would You Know If You Were Doing It Right?

Doctors and lawyers are two professions that have long been guided by official ethical rules. The way ethics work in those fields can help us understand why ethics don't work in the field of journalism. 

What motivates individuals in our economy? Ignore the economists. There are scientists who study this question who practice in the field of social psychology. Social psychology doesn't have a biweekly column in the New York Times, so it's hard to learn about it when you don't have access to academic journals, but a couple of examples I stumbled upon include Antecedents of Public Service Motivation and Motivation Theory and Industrial and Organizational Psychology

The clear facts that arise out of this:

  • Making money is an obvious motivation in a job.
  • There are lots of other motivations too and professional ethics and expectations are a big one.

So how do these motivations work together? Let's identify first how lawyers, doctors, and journalists make money.

Lawyers: money usually comes from the client. Help your client and you get paid.

Doctors: money comes from the patient or his insurance company. Help your patient and you get paid.

Journalists: money comes from advertisers. Attract eyeballs to advertisements and you get paid.

So how do ethics fit it? A sensible scheme might be:

Legal ethics tell lawyers how to serve their clients. 

Medical ethics tell doctors how to serve their patients.

Journalistic ethics tell journalists how to ethically attract eyeballs. 

Is that how it works? Yes for lawyers.

From the American Bar Association, Model Rules For Professional Conduct, Preamble:

[1] A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.

[2] As a representative of clients, a lawyer performs various functions. As advisor, a lawyer provides a client with an informed understanding of the client's legal rights and obligations and explains their practical implications. As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client's position under the rules of the adversary system. As negotiator, a lawyer seeks a result advantageous to the client but consistent with requirements of honest dealings with others. As an evaluator, a lawyer acts by examining a client's legal affairs and reporting about them to the client or to others.

...

Same for doctors.

Medical ethics are about how to serve the patient, ethically. From the American Medical Association Principles of Medical Ethics:

Principles of medical ethics

I. A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights.

II. A physician shall uphold the standards of professionalism, be honest in all professional interactions, and strive to report physicians deficient in character or competence, or engaging in fraud or deception, to appropriate entities.

III. A physician shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient.

IV. A physician shall respect the rights of patients, colleagues, and other health professionals, and shall safeguard patient confidences and privacy within the constraints of the law.

V. A physician shall continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public, obtain consultation, and use the talents of other health professionals when indicated.

VI. A physician shall, in the provision of appropriate patient care, except in emergencies, be free to choose whom to serve, with whom to associate, and the environment in which to provide medical care.

VII. A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health.

VIII. A physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount. IX. A physician shall support access to medical care for all people. 

Now, journalists. Their job is to attract eyeballs. How do you do that ethically? 

The ethics of journalism have no answer for that question. In fact, they seem to suggest that journalists shouldn't even try to attract eyeballs. Instead, reporters job is to serve an employer called The Truth. What time does the boss want you to show up? Ask The Truth. No wonder they have no idea how to behave.

I quote journalistic ethics below at length to show the absence of any acknowledgement that their job is to attract eyeballs and the question for ethics is "How do I do that ethically?"

From the American Press Association come the Principles of Journalism:

Principles of Journalism
 
1. JOURNALISM’S FIRST OBLIGATION IS TO THE TRUTH
2. ITS FIRST LOYALTY IS TO CITIZENS
3. ITS ESSENCE IS DISCIPLINE OF VERIFICATION
4. ITS PRACTITIONERS MUST MAINTAIN AN INDEPENDENCE FROM THOSE THEY COVER
5. IT MUST SERVE AS AN INDEPENDENT MONITOR OF POWER
6. IT MUST PROVIDE A FORUM FOR PUBLIC CRITICISM AND COMPROMISE
7. IT MUST STRIVE TO MAKE THE SIGNIFICANT INTERESTING AND RELEVANT
8. IT MUST KEEP THE NEWS COMPREHENSIVE AND PROPORTIONAL
9. ITS PRACTITIONERS MUST BE ALLOWED TO EXERCISE THEIR PERSONAL CONSCIENCE

There's no governing body for journalists like the ABA. So maybe the above isn't a fair representation? Look to another organization, the American Society of News Editors and their Statement of Principles:

PREAMBLE

The First Amendment, protecting freedom of expression from abridgment by any law, guarantees to the people through their press a constitutional right, and thereby places on news people a particular responsibility. Thus journalism demands of its practitioners not only industry and knowledge but also the pursuit of a standard of integrity proportionate to the journalist's singular obligation. To this end the American Society of News Editors sets forth this Statement of Principles as a standard encouraging the highest ethical and professional performance.

ARTICLE I - Responsibility

The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time. Newsmen and women who abuse the power of their professional role for selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to that public trust. The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government.

ARTICLE II - Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press belongs to the people. It must be defended against encroachment or assault from any quarter, public or private. Journalists must be constantly alert to see that the public's business is conducted in public. They must be vigilant against all who would exploit the press for selfish purposes.

ARTICLE III - Independence

Journalists must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict. They should neither accept anything nor pursue any activity that might compromise or seem to compromise their integrity.

ARTICLE IV - Truth and Accuracy

Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.

ARTICLE V - Impartiality

To be impartial does not require the press to be unquestioning or to refrain from editorial expression. Sound practice, however, demands a clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion. Articles that contain opinion or personal interpretation should be clearly identified.

ARTICLE VI - Fair Play

Journalists should respect the rights of people involved in the news, observe the common standards of decency and stand accountable to the public for the fairness and accuracy of their news reports. Persons publicly accused should be given the earliest opportunity to respond. Pledges of confidentiality to news sources must be honored at all costs, and therefore should not be given lightly. Unless there is clear and pressing need to maintain confidences, sources of information should be identified.

These principles are intended to preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people, a bond that is essential to sustain the grant of freedom entrusted to both by the nation's founders.

So the job of the journalist is abstract and impossible. How is that going to work out? See, e.g., Stalin.