Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shattered Glass

Is a journalist ever justified to not seek and report the truth? How about PR professionals? Are they entitled to distort and lie by virtue of their jobs? Why or why not? Please respond by noon, Sunday, Feb. 7 .

34 comments:

Kim Dubin said...

A journalist should not be justified if they don't seek or report the truth. That is the first principle under the code of ethics. To seek and report. Besides it being their job, the journalist themselves should not want to report information that they don't know for a fact if it's true or not. Reporting information without having legitimate sources backing it up is not just unprofessional, but it can ruin the persons life you are reporting about. PR professionals on the other hand should seek the truth as well, but are not held to publicly put it out there. They are known as the spin doctors and are meant to make their client look well in any means possible. Most publicists cover up the clients truth from what I have learned from, but on the other hand isn't it true that they just want whats best for their client? Sometimes that means making a negative into a positive of their actions. The virtue of a journalists job and a PR professionals job is very different for the most part. When journalists should report the truth alone and present it as the truth, PR professionals can present the truth in a different manner. Although it is still the truth it might not be the whole truth or it might be the truth from another perspective. Either which way these two professions should have some sort of feeling that what they want to do is the right thing, for the client, the public and for themselves.

Howie Good said...

kim raises a couple of interesting questions in my mind:

1) if pr professionals don't tell the whole truth, then is what they tell deceptive -- that is, a lie? is there really such a thing as a half-truth? What's the other half? Wouldn't it be an untruth?

2) Is it possible for a PR professional to be loyal to his client AND the public if he or she shades the facts in the interest of the client? I don't see how, but maybe someone can explain it to me. And if a PR professional serves a client first, and the public second, is PR a profession or only a career? Do professions (in the full sense of the term) have to be public-spirited in purpose?

Kim Dubin said...

Being that PR professionals don't tell the whole truth I don't think its a lie, maybe a little deceptive, but it has the what you don't know wont hurt you kind of mentality. The half truth can perhaps be what we do want people to see in our client for example. It can be seen as the untruth the other half, but again like a white lie...are we gonna tell our loved ones they look horrible in the outfit and walk with them in public making them not feel right, or are we going to tell them it looks great and walk with them in public full of confidence? I think PR professionals do tend to put client before the public if it something that is not needed for the public to know, like all the celebrities out there who don't want there life as a spot light story every second. I'm sure their publicist if they have one doesn't share his/her life details if there not necessary. Perhaps PR is only a career and not a profession, but they are both jobs aren't they? One way or another whoever has that job is serving their client and or the public in one way or another. Professional or not.

Howie Good said...

but aren't we saying in class that being a professional is different than being an employee? that it comes with the weight of public responsibilities?

and can you really compare a white lie to a friend or relative to a lie to the public about an oil company by a publicist?

anyone else who wants should join this dialog. . . that's what the blog post was meant to spark

Kim Dubin said...

That is true, a professional does have the extra public responsibility on their hands. Yes an oil spill would be a lot bigger than a white lie to a relative, I guess I was taking it into a smaller hypothetical idea. I think if something major and big were to happen like an oil spill it is smart to tell the truth and not work around it in a PR position with that major topic.

pspengeman said...

I don't think journalists or PR professional's are justified to not report the truth in any situation. Isn't the first rule of journalism to report truth? And aren't these professions, arguably so more than others, required to hold a higher code of ethics and/or reliability?

Jobs provoke the distortion of the truth and present an absence of true virtue. The feeling is humans that distinguishes wrong from right shouldn't be instilled by our employer or profession, but rather your proficiency should be guided by your morals. One SHOULD become a teacher because they genuinely want to teach and perform their job to the best of their ability. One SHOULD become a journalist because they genuinely want to report, to their best knowledge, the truth and to spread knowledge. I think all professions should perform virtuously in order for the majority of things to run smoothly.

I understand this is extremely ideal, and the reason why people tend to distort knowledge for the sake of their jobs is because the system has been engrained to let employers think thats what's wrong is right. Instead of continuing to let the moral faults that many workers meet instead of correcting the systematic errors, than why even bother to become a profession you mean to execute ethically? Isn't it are duty to enhance the world around us, and our community?

Meg said...

This is a tricky situation, because as Kim said, the first principle under the code of ethics is to seek and report the truth. Most journalists want to be successful in life, so why would they then purposefully go about reporting the wrong information. That would destroy their credibility and any other hopes that they have in being in the field of journalism. That being the selfish perspective, it would also ruin the lives of the people or person that the journalist is reporting falsely about. Using false information may work for getting a story done on time or for some other deadline, but in the long run, no good can come from printing blatantly false information if you are a journalist. That being said, I feel like PR professionals have a different standard. I think most of the time the PR professionals WANT to report the truth, but maybe not report the whole story. It may not necessarily be deceptive, because the whole story is not being told. Leaving out certain bits of information can still make a story correct, but many times the public can be left out of ALL the details. I feel like this is true with advertising as well. Most advertisers focus on the good aspects of a product, but fail to mention the downsides of that product. PR professionals want to make their clients appear as good as they can in the public eye, and sometimes that means leaving out some information. Or as Kim referred to, the spin doctors, who try and turn a bad situation into something good. If some bad information (or negative publicity) HAS to be reported, then PR professionals will try and turn the situation around. I feel like with journalists, depending on the story and the situation being reported, they just want to report the whole story whether its good information or information that may have a negative impact on someone.
Maybe there is such a thing as a half truth, but maybe it's more like a half story? What's being told is true, however they may be so much more to the story that we as a public are not being told. As someone who is possibly interested in going into the field of PR I'll be honest, I don't think there is such a thing as being both loyal to the client and loyal to the public. I think it can be done, but ultimately there will always be one you are more loyal to and most of the time, if you want to keep your job, then you'll be more loyal to the client. Maybe as a PR professional, you think you have a responsibility to the public as do journalists, but when it comes down to it, if you make your client look bad just to tell the public what's really going on, you're most likely going to be fired.
I don't know if there will ever be a profession in this industry in which you can please yourself, your client, AND the public and have everyone be happy. In the end all that you can hope for is that journalists and PR professionals and whoever else there may be do their best and WANT to report the truth simply because it's the right thing to do.

Howie Good said...

meg suggests thinking of half-truth as helf the story. isn't this what the councilman was so furious about in the case we scrutinized in class -- that it was only half the story? or, as the questions put it, it was factual, but not truthful. by which i mean you need the whole story to understand the significance of the facts.

Kim Plummer said...

Journalists are always obliged to seek and report the truth, but whether or not that is rewarded is another story. But, the thing is, like the reading says, there are a lot of other pressures that tend to get in the way of reporting the truth. New reporters who don’t have strong ethical values can be easily manipulated by the pressures of 24-hour news cycle, to take part in what one observer from the reading calls the “buzz-and-bucks era of journalistic celebrityhood.”

I wish the reading spent more time focusing on why Glass felt that he needed to fabricate stories. Editors love stories that out scoop other papers and stand out—in fact Glass’s editors helped him jazz up the headlines of the stories that he wrote. It sounds like there was a pressure to keep up this persona of a prominent reporter finding these riveting story narratives.

It seems often young journalists who just start working in the newsroom tend to forget about what the real focus of their job should be. Journalists should be rewarded on the quality of their reporting and how they contribute to making the public more informed, not, unfortunately, on how glamorous their story and headlines will appear.

Journalists and PR professionals are different in the fact that journalists are intended to serve the public, whereas PR professionals serve their individual clients. This is something journalists need to remember when reporting stories. That their duty is to the public, and the only well to fulfill that duty is to report the truth as accurately as possible.

However, I don’t think this means PR professionals are entitled to blatantly lie and distort the truth for their clients. PR professionals choose the clients they work for, and an ethically-inclined PR professional wouldn’t choose to work for a company that will request constant spinning of the “truth.” Like the example you gave of a publicist who might have to try to cover up an oil spill.

Certainly, a PR professional will normally have stronger loyalties with the company their working for, rather than the public. But, personally, I think a really great PR professional might be able to merge the two competing publics they’re working for. Getting the most truth as possible to from the client to the public, and ideally the public will have a better image regarding that company: leading to increased company/public trust and increased revenue for that company (maybe a reward for honesty?). Unfortunately, I don’t think this sort of ideology has gained much merit in the world of PR, or atleast not with for-profit companies. I would hope that PR with not-for-profit companies would be more honest, since not-for-profits are designed to serve the well-being of the public… usually.

Howie Good said...

shouldn't one's primary loyalty always be to one's conscience and principles rather than to a company or even an abstract entity like the public?

and one more: if pr teaches how to tell half-truths, then why is being taught in a liberal arts college where the goal is the spread of light and knowledge? (i honestly find this a tough one to answer myself.)

LImpagliazzo said...

Journalists are support to seek and report the truth. Like Kim said it's the first principle in the code of ethics for journalists. They are not doing their job if they are not reporting the truth.
For PR professionals it's tricky. They should report the truth, but they have a duty to their clients. They are supposed to do everything in their power to make their clients look good. They may not lie, but they go around the truth. It's a tricky situation. Journalist have their loyalty to their job which is getting the news out there in a non-opinionated way and PR professionals have loyalty to their job which is to make their clients look good.

Howie Good said...

Limp,etc., are you saying PR professionals don't have an obligation to be ethical?

Maxim Alter said...

Let me start with journalists. First of all, there is a difference between "reporting the truth" and "seeking and reporting the truth." I believe that journalists are responsible for both. Reporting the truth means reporting things that really happened. Nothing can be made up and nothing can be twisted. This is a journalists core responsibility. Do not twist the truth. But, there is a common misconception with this idea. Journalists cannot just report what they see and hear. They also need to go a step forward. It isn't enough to hide behind the words of others in a report. You cannot just say that Bob Everyman said this about his landlord or Sally Everywoman said this about her councilman at the town meeting. A journalist needs to go beyond what is said and seek out the truth. They need to investigate. They need to SEEK and report the absolute truth.

After Thursdays discussion of the reporter who dealt with the Mayor and the councilman pesticide situation, I have a completely different mindset. At first, I thought that since the reporter approached the councilman for comments and wrote a balanced story that she did fine. But after really thinking about it and listening to what Howie said, I no longer agree with my first opinion. The reporter, I believer her name was Amanda, didn't go far enough. So what if she had quotes from the Mayor and the Councilman? She needed to go further. She needed to SEEK the truth. She needed to look at the payrolls. She needed to find out the truth behind the Mayors accusations. She shouldn't have reported the story otherwise. I think the person in the biggest violation is the editor. The editor should have not accepted this report. They gave the reporter a deadline and didn't giver her enough time to flesh out the story. The paper did not handle this right and I now understand that. But that's why I am taking a class like this. If I came in knowing and understanding everything than what would be the point of taking a class in the first place.

Now, as far as PR goes. I do not believe they should have a free pass when it comes to telling the truth, no matter who their loyalty is to. I understand that PR professionals don't believe it is their responsibility to seek the truth, but they should not be bending the truth either. People in the business of PR are known for something called "spin," similar to what politicians are known for. Using spin, they can give a creative presentation of facts without ever denying or agreeing with anything. If someone said it was ok for a journalist to use spin, then they would lose all credit and merit as an actual journalist. I honestly don't really know how I feel about a PRs responsibilities. I would love to see their code of ethics. I do believe, however, that no matter what job title you hold, it doesn't give you an excuse to lie and it doesn't give you a free card to not give the public the truth. You are just as ethically responsible as anyone, including the journalists.

Howie Good said...

the pr code of ethics can be found through a link on our blog. . . take a look, everyone. . . we can talk more about it monday

Chelsea LaDue said...

It is well known that a journalist is always supposed to report the truth. If they write something that is not true or fabricated there are serious repercussions like in the case of Stephen Glass. It is never ok to distort the truth or flat out lie. But when it comes to PR professionals, it is known that they write what makes their client look good. They seek the truth, but they are not expected to report it. No offense to PR majors, but it is sometimes their job to write things that may not be true to protect the reputation of their clients. This is often done with celebrity PR's. I wouldn't say it's ok for them to do this, but like a PR major said in class, it is something she expects she will have to do within her profession which is part of why I chose journalism over PR.

J.Rodriguez said...

I dont think as a journalist, you are ever justified to not seek and report the truth. as Kim said, It is the very first principle, seek and report the truth. A journalist can't report something that isn't true, that's just like spreading false rumors in high school. As a journalist, you should feel wrong if you ever reported false information because you are being misleading. Like in the movie clip we watched in class, they were trying to beat a deadline so they printed basically the wrong information. Even with having a deadline, you shouldn't report inaccurate information, I feel you should ask for an extension if anything. When you report anything but the truth, even if it is half the truth, I consider it to be a lie, no matter how big the story is. When you talk about PR professionals, I feel like it is part of their job to show the truth in a slightly different way. They may present half the truth, but once again I still feel like that's when it becomes a lie. Pr professionals are probably entitled to distort and lie by virtue just because as I stated before, when you present half the truth or even try to twist it, it's a lie. I don't necessarily think it's right though.

Howie Good said...

it's hard for me, josh, how anyone is "entitled" to lie. lying is an abuse of trust. it's an assault on another person's dignity. it also pollutes the public sphere, making dialog, if not impossible, at least problematic.

Howie Good said...

chelsea raises an intriguing point -- are different types drawn to pr and journalism? and how does that affect what can and should be taught in class?

The Wanderer said...

Let's start with a definition:

Propaganda: The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.

Now, let's change out some fancy words for a product we all know:

The systematic propagation of Coca Cola or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a beverage.

Public relations is just another word for propaganda. Can propaganda ever be ethical? (Putting aside the question of whether it can be good or evil.)

I don't know. But I sure do like a Coke Zero.

MBachmann said...

Im going to start off by saying that whether you are a PR professional or a journalist it is never ethically right to lie. Journalists especially have one main job "seek truth and report it". In the chapter Shattered Glass it said there was a study done that "reporters found that nearly three-quarters of journalists had engaged in some form of deception." (p.21) These deceptions included, hidden cameras, false identity ect. That is a huge percentage of journalist that we trust to report the truth and they feel it necessary to lie and deceit to get ahead in their careers. As for PR professionals, they are professionals and it is their job to preform a service that we can trust them to do. They have the responsibility to not necessarily tell us the truth, but the facts. But still in no means do they have the right to "distort and lie by virtue of their jobs."

Lindsey said...

As we have talked about in previous classes and discussions, ethics are the principles of what’s right or wrong. As it’s known, journalists are supposed to seek and report the truth, but many fail to do so. They seek what is happening and then tweak the report a little bit to make the audience more interested. I believe they do this because they get higher ratings when they stretch the truth. I think that it’s okay to stretch the truth but not as a journalist. People want to hear exactly what is going on, not a fake or twisted story. The people watching the news are tuned in because they’re not at the situation that is happening and want to be clued in. When I’m reading the paper about a terrorist attack I don’t want a journalist to tweak the truth in anyway because it could put me in danger. Even if they tweak the truth with a smaller story it might be a big deal to someone else. Journalists should stick to doing their job and not distort the truth.

PR professionals should seek the truth as well as the journalist but I believe it’s okay if the truth gets a little altered. The PR professional’s job is to make the client look good and support them. If the client is in the wrong it seems that the PR professional covers it up and protects them. Even though it’s not ethically correct to lie it’s more acceptable for a PR professional to lie for a client then journalist to lie to the world. PR professional’s that change the truth just a little bit doesn’t hurt an enormous amount of people like the journalist would. In journalism a lie would be a huge deal while with the PR professional it would only be a white lie. I believe that nobody should lie but if it doesn’t hurt a great amount of people then it’s not so bad. A journalist job is to seek truth and report it while a PR professional’s job is support your client. If doing these things no matter what obstacles there is, you’re doing you’re job and that’s all that is asked of you.

(This question makes me repeat myself as well as contradict myself but I’m confused with and this is what I came up with.)

Lindsey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samantha said...

I cannot think of a reason why a reporter would be justified in not seeking out the truth. There are situations where they may think they have the truth but don't but that is not necessarily their fault. For some situations you have to take people at their word and don't have an opportunity to check their facts. In these cases the best a journalist can do is attribute where they got their information. As far as PR is concerned, I don't think that it is necessarily their job to lie, instead they may stretch or distort the truth. I'm not sure if I consider that flat out lying or not. Everybody lies, whether they tell white lies or bigger lies depends on their personality and personal code of ethics. However, if one is going to go into PR they are probably comfortable withholding or distorting the truth. But I don't think that people go into PR just to tell lies for a living.

George Selby said...

It’s hard to see PR as an ethical profession when it is held to the same standards that I would hold a journalist to. Like Kim P. and a few others have said, there are serious differences in a PR person’s job, mainly the fact that a journalist is expected by the public to provide an accurate and truthful report, where a PR person is expected by the public to be a faithful representative of their employer. Another point is that a PR person does not have a job if he has no employer, whereas a journalist without an employer is still a journalist, albeit a poor one. What a journalist says is accepted as researched fact, but I don’t think this is true with PR people.
What I’m saying is that while it is unethical for anyone to deceive for any reason, certain professions have developed where deception is a valuable skill. A lawyer is sworn to protect his client and to profess his innocence, even if the client is guilty. A PR person attempts to make his client look innocent of their wrongdoing while knowing perfectly well that they are guilty. Why then do we question and criticize the ethics of the PR person and not the lawyer? They are both distorting truths by the virtue of their jobs, and everyone knows it, so it’s OK!
Journalists like Glass and Laurens who fabricate stories and report on rumors and out of context statements do much more damage than a PR person. Glass was malicious in his transgressions. Not only did he fabricate, but he invested a lot of time and thought on his fabrications. He would get hung for a premeditated crime in a fair society, while Laurens would be guilty of a lesser, heat-of-the moment charge. Clearly we can’t hold Laurens in the same light as Glass, she was only doing what she thought would be enough, without thinking of the repercussions.
My feeling is that all who are deceptive cannot be considered truly ethical, but there are degrees of unethical, and there are some jobs which require you to be deceptive.

Julia said...

As the code of ethics says, a journalist's job is to report, above all, the truth. A journalist is not a true journalist if they wish to do something other than report truth. Before the Laurens case study we looked at in class, I believed truth and fact to be the same thing. Now I realize that a fact can be part of a truth (a half-truth). Although not a flat-out lie, half-truths are not the truth. To be selective in the parts of truth that one reports is deceptive and, ultimately, a lie. One reason to not deceive is because the "public" deserves the truth . Another is because of one's own conscience. In the end, you're the one who has to be alone with your thoughts and reporting the truth fairly surely makes it easier to live with yourself, at least easier to sleep at night.


PR professionals should still be held to the truth. It is seen as more acceptable for a truth to be bent since they shape the image of an individual client. Fluffing the image of a certain client is being dishonest to the public. Whether this dishonesty to the public is harmless or not would have to be judged on a case by case basis. As we have seen in class, lies and half-truths are more acceptable in the PR business than journalism.

Victoria said...

Journalists have a duty to report the truth. Like Kim said, it is in their code of ethics to seek and report the truth. A journalist should only report things that are proven facts, and should go to all lengths to receive those facts and make sure they are true before printing the story. Under no circumstances is it ok for a journalist to lie or even stretch the truth. Also it is not adequate for a journalist to report only some of the facts. This is not actually lying, but by journalists only reporting half of the truth, it blurs the lines between journalism and public relations.

On the other hand PR professionals have a different stance on the truth. They also should report the truth, but I believe PR has a different definition of truth then journalism. Covering up the truth is not considered a lie, and is a major part of PR. I believe that is one of the major skills of PR professionals, covering up the truth to save the reputation of a company without lying.

Sarah Boalt said...

It is never justifiable for a journalist to not seek and report the truth. It is the first thing outlined in the code of ethics; it is practically their job description. For a journalist to lie in any way would completely discredit them as a journalist. They signed up for re[porting what was real and true, so in not doing so it is like they are saying they never wanted to be a journalist in the first place. Journalism is not a place to take the easy way out or create false sensationalism. Journalism is to inform the public as truthfully to your ability.

I don't think that just because PR professionals hold a different job description is any reason for them to lie. They have a much more difficult job description in that they have to make their client presentable and like-able to other people. This means they may have to distort the truth or present the truth in a different way to protect their clients. I do not necessarily believe that this is ethical in any way. Distorting the truth is not technically a lie, but isn't it still a lie if the truth about a client is being perceived in a different light than how it actually is? I know that PR may have to represent people with some not so savory characteristics, but that is in no way an excuse to lie because they are being paid.

Allison said...

Nether Journalists or PR professionals should be encouraged to lie. Both professions are tied together, many journalists get their information from media releases written by PR professionals.So if a media release is not credible there is a possibility that neither is a journalists story. It's up to the journalist to go farther, and obtain multiple sources. Journalists serve the public, and their right to know what's going on. They Make the public aware of the truth to the best of their knowledge. In PR you are being payed by a specific company to connect them to the public. A main goal in PR is to get your company's message out to the public, to create a trustful bond between consumers and the company. Within the PR code of ethics Being "honest and accurate" is right beside "act in the best interest of the client". In PR, professionals are under a code of ethics similar to that of journalists, but they will always try and keep the relationship between the public and the client as strong as possible. not meaning they should full out lie for their employer, but to find out creative ways to keep that sense of trust. Journalist should never intentionally lie at any cost, but there have been times that sources have given them inaccurate information.

DevonP said...

A journalist should always try their best to obtain as much correct information as possible, as report exactly what they have discovered. If they do not find enough credible information then they should not report it, simple as that. A journalist is not justified to do anything other than report the truth. However, as we talked about in class, noone ever really knows what the "truth" is, but their best interpretation of the truth. I believe what the reporter did in "Shattered Glass" was admirable and the right thing. He knew that the story they were spreading to the city was incorrect and he wanted to fix it. The editor was not justified in not stopping the printing.

As for PR professionals, I honestly do not know all that much about the profession. From what I do know, they represent people and companies and answer questions proposed by the press. From what I have seen from them, and what I understand of them, they do stretch the truth at times to cover up mis-doings of their party. I won't say they are justified in doing that, but their job is to represent their party in a good light, if that means not telling the truth, then so be it. It is not right, but since they are on that companies payroll, that is all I could expect.

Chanel Arias said...

It seems to me that the job of journalists is to report the truth and nothing but the truth. I think what changes this state of mind is when journalists realize the kind of power they actually have. It's when they realize that they have the power of influence and the power to change the perspective of an entire city ad possibly even country.Power distorts people's views of what is right and wrong. Another thing to look at, is power mixed with deadlines do not make a good mix. Overall, it is never justifiable for a journalist to not seek and report truth, it seems that when instances where unfactual information is given, they are discovered, and are left apologizing.

The job of a PR professional is to make a company look good. Unlike journalists, PR professionals are not necessarily counted on for truthful stories as much as an audience would count on a journalist.

eden rose said...

Sorry such a late response but I don’t think there are too many circumstances where a journalist of a pr professional is justified to not seek and report the truth. Although a lot of my peers have exhausted many of the points about this topic I will explain in a more conservative way how I feel. Journalist and people in the PR field work with people, which is in their job description. There is no excuse to lie to these people. If you have signed up for this job then your responsibility is too fulfill the peoples need for truth. Don’t get me wrong I’m sure there are specific times where the truth gets construed but like you phrased in the question there is never a JUSTIFIED reason. No job description should ever be that you are entitled to distort and lie, that in itself is unethical. Personally this wasn’t my favorite post to comment on because I feel like I’m contradicting myself and i also feel that in every field especially the two listed above although there are a code of ethics and rules there are still certain circumstances that people feel they are aloud to break these codes and rules. That’s a whole other ethical dilemma.

JustinMcCarthy said...

This is the easiest question thus far.
No, it is never justified for a journalist to not seek and report truth.
Journalism’s sole purpose is to inform the masses and give them resources for information that they can trust and depend on for truth. If a journalist did not seek truth and report it, he would be doing the exact opposite of what his job is supposed to do for society. Public relations professionals should also report the truth, but I suppose their job is to seek and report the truth that works in their benefit and ignore all other truth that works against them.
I give public relations professionals much more leeway when it comes to reporting truth because while journalists are supposed to perform a service for society, public relations professionals don’t really have to. They’re performing services for an individual, a company or an institution and their interests are not always invested in societal good.
While I would tell a journalist to seek truth and report it, the only expectation I have of public relations professionals is simply to not lie.

aDavis said...

I do not think a true journalist is ever justified in not seeking the truth to the very best they can. Despite the number of excellent journalists there are in the world, there are still some who I would take a chance to guess are misguided about the code of ethics. Like we were discussing in our last blog post and class, why was Meghan asleep in ethics? I believe I posted something like she wasn't reluctant to ethics, just reluctant to see ethics in any way but her own. I think some journalists have that dilemma as well. As a result, when someone asks them why they didn't report the truth fully, they say they worked best with what they had. This still, is not an excuse to me. If you have decided to pursue the profession of a journalist, this is the one highest standard you must abide by.
The difference between seeking the truth and reporting the truth leads to problems though. Is it ever enough that a journalist simply reports on something he/she was assigned to and does not do some further investigation in order to get the full truth? Like in the case we studied, was it really that journalists job to delve into the ongoing vicious battle between the mayor and the councilman? I believe she reported to the best of her abilities and was sort of being caught in the middle of a polotical fight.
PR professionals on the other hand, are more inclined to take the statement of seek and report the truth, and bend it to their own profession. I would like to know if PR started our this way, or if the stigma of distorting the truth for the company's gain was acquired over the years. I think PR professionals are faced with difficult decisions. I don't believe they are entitled to lie and not seek the truth, but I do think it is true if they make the company look bad with a damaging truth, therecan be serious reprocussions. I honestly don't know, it's a very hard thing to call.
SO as for journalists: no, they are never justified in not seeking and reporting the truth to the best of their possible abilities. And as for PR professionals, it seems more of an unchangable grey area to me.

KHutchinson said...

I'm soooo sorry that this is a few hours late. We didn't have internet access at my house yesterday or today, so I had to drive to the college to submit this.

As a journalist, I don't think there is ever a time that it is not ok to seek anything but the truth. This is the oath that journalists take.
PR is a bit different. As a PR major, I am very aware that I will be presented with a situation that contradicts my moral ethics, it's something I've gone back and forth about in my head. I keep asking myself the question, is it ok to contradict what I think is right if it will help me keep my job? At the end of the day? I'm ok with that to a certain point. I really can't speak broadly, because each would be on a situational basis. How do I feel at that time, how can I rationalize each side of the situation.
By being in the PR field, I am going to be asked to represent a person, or a company that will need for me to bend and distort the truth. I can draw the line somewhere to begin with, like that I would NEVER work for a cigarette company, but what about being asked to work for a celebrity and lie about their status, or deny claims about their personal life? I think that's 100% ok. Honestly, because what business is it of anyone elses anyway? It's their personal life, they can do or represent themselves however they want.
Journalists can't do that though. They have a responsibility to tell the truth as exactly as they can with the information that they are given. This does not allow for people to distort or bend the truth, or rather, it shouldn't.
In today's world, as we saw in the short movie clip we watched in class, this isn't always done.
I really think the publisher, or editor, whomever she was, was in the wrong. It's not, "publish what we have and then we can retract it tomorrow, no harm done."
At the end of the day, whomever you burn by printing something that isn't true, they're already tarnished in reputation.
It's like that old story about the woman who spreads a rummer and seeks guidance from the town wise man. He tells her to spread feathers all over the road then go back and pick them all up? You know the one I'm talking about...
This is the same with journalism. Once you put something out there, it's out there. If you are a journalist and publish the un-true you are breaking the oath you've taken to report the truth and you may as well give up journalism and come to the dark side, in this case PR.
I'm ok with spinning a little web of white lies. Leaking a story when it needs to be, holding back information when it should be released. If that makes me a bad person well...Well I don't think it does. I know what my limits are and I know where to draw the line, so I think my work in PR would still be (for the most part) on the up and up...as much as I can at least.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates


The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.


Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.