Ethics remain a top concern

ethics panel

An overflow crowd turned out to hear former Denver Post political writer and SPJ award winner Fred Brown and Washington Post/NPR correspondent T.R. Reid expound on the state of ethics in journalism, the journalists' role, shield laws, bloggers and other topics.

Regarding the state of ethics in journalism today, there is "good reason to be concerned," Brown said. "We keep seeing violation after violation." He cited former New York Times journalist Judith Miller's "failure to question the material she was getting from her sources" in the Valerie Plame case, even though Miller had been lauded for going to jail for refusing to reveal her sources. Brown explained why it would be difficult — and perhaps wrong — to enact a law that would protect the confidentiality between journalists and their sources. "A shield law would require some sort of definition of what a legitimate journalist is," he said. "Are bloggers journalists? Is it because they are not trained? We don't have licensing for journalists, and that's the last thing that we want."

Credible journalists have their material vetted by at least two editors who hold the story to ethical standards of accuracy, the panelists agreed. Most bloggers are not subjected to this process, which doesn't necessarily mean their material is inaccurate.

In fact, Reid noted, when bloggers break a story before ensuring its accuracy, they "are going to enhance the status of mainstream media, because the mainstream media try to get it right, and most of the time [they] do. That stuff about illegal wiretaps . . . by the government [was] on the Internet before it was reported in the mainstream media."

Reid also credited bloggers for helping America maintain "a feisty, freewheeling press," and took aim at the administration's attempts to control the news. "I don't buy the argument that reporting news that the government doesn't want you to hear is unAmerican. That's not an ethical violation. They are doing what journalists are supposed to do," he said. "It is the job of the media to report things that are true, whether the government likes it or not."

Responding to questions about the ethics involved in the nonstop reporting on the recent John Mark Karr/JonBenet Ramsey case, Brown said, "Sometimes when you continue to dig, all you get is a bigger hole. Journalists need to recognize that. It doesn't mean you should stop digging, but you need to know when it's not really a story."

Good journalists aren't necessarily objective, both panelists agreed.

"You cannot be anybody but who you are," Brown said. "You can strive to be impartial, but [it's] more important for a good journalist to strive to be uninfluenced by anything except the facts." Reid said he was "down on objective journalism; I don't like it. The theory is you want to report the story down the middle and let the reader decide what is right, I don't think it works. It has failed readers in many ways-they have to read more, listen to both sides," and they aren't necessarily going to do that.

Looking for a counterpoint to every story doesn't make the story better, because "when eight people already agree that something doesn't add up, calling the ninth who says it does, isn't objective," he said.

T.R. Reid Fred Brown

The problem is when the "news" today is highly slanted, Brown noted. A lot of "people seek affirmation instead of information, and they want to be assured instead of challenged." This is a problem journalists are going to need to address, he added.

— Gay Porter DeNileon, Colorado Press Women