Sunday, January 23, 2005

Journalism no longer a profession

One of the most vexing questions from one of my Philosophy professors was, "Why behave morally?" Simple answers like, "So I can go to Heaven," or "Because God wants me to," were respected, but we were challenged to find a purely secular justification. I never did.


But a much simpler question is, "Why follow my profession's code of ethics?" The answer is: so you are trusted to serve your customers and they continue to patronize you. Members of the mainstream media, by rampantly disregarding their own code of ethics, are killing journalism as a profession.

Wheras morality involves general, universal principles of right and wrong, codes of ethics offer specific behaviorial guidance to specific groups, usually professions. It seems like everybody has a code of ethics: librarians, psychologists, realtors, social workers, you name it.

A profession's code of ethics tells the world what to expect from its members. Among other things, codes are crafted to align the profession's members' interests with its customers'. For exmple, the American Medical Association's Principles of Medical Ethics include:
I. A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights.
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.
Pretty good stuff. If I am reasonably confident that the AMA enforces this code, I can be pretty comfortable going to a doctor. If not, maybe I won't.

Even journalists have a code of ethics. The Society of Professional Jounalists Code of Ethics seems pretty reasonable. But it contains some absolute howlers to those of us who have been following media bias for any length of time. For example, the code says "Journalists should:"
  • Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
I guess the journalists cheering Norman Mailer's anti-Bush smears at Harvard's 2004 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism missed that one (hat tip, A Sailor in the Desert).
  • Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
  • Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
  • Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
  • Admit mistakes and correct them promptly
It seems Dan Rather has some serious 'splaining to do.
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
Obviously, these were completely ignored in ABC's disgusting search for and use of a service member's funeral as a counterpoint to President Bush's inaugural.

So what is the consequence of a profession not enforcing its own code of ethics?

Imagine doctors rampantly and blatantly breaking the AMA's code of ethics. Imagine patients receiving shoddy treatment, poor medical care, being treated with contempt and their medical information being publicly distributed. And imagine that not only are the doctors involved not punished, but they are cheered and awarded honors. In this scenario, instead of being respected as competent caregivers, doctors would be seen as arrogant, untrustworthy quacks. Few people would go to them. And medicine, no longer a profession, would wither and die.

The latest Gallup Poll shows that less than a quarter of the population rates journalists "very high" or "high" on honesty and ethical standards (hat tip, Brij Singh). That doesn't bode well for the future of the profesion of journalism. But since they refuse to enforce their own code of ethics, journalists have only themselves to blame.

(There is more information on the ABC incident at Captain's Quarters and Mudville Gazette)