News rules

RTNDA is rewriting its ethics code—in tricky times, an updated guide to journalistic integrity in the newsroom
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It seemed like a simple request, and a favorable answer would certainly have pleased a large, important local business. "We were asked by a theme park to give the weather as 'mostly sunny' instead of 'partly cloudy,'" a news director recalls. "Their thinking was that 'mostly sunny' sounds like a good day to go to a theme park. 'Partly cloudy' does not. And I could think of no meteorological reason why we say 'partly cloudy' instead of 'mostly sunny' or even 'partly sunny.'" But, he added, "we didn't change it."

In electronic news, some calls are easy: A Tennessee station that offers local businesses favorable news stories for $15,000 was wrong. A Los Angeles station that ran an investigative piece on local car dealerships-despite pressure from its heavy advertising community-was right. A Florida radio reporter telephoning a killer who was holding hostages, was wrong. Baltimore stations cooperating with police during a hostage standoff in that city were right.

But balancing ethics against overly aggressive reporters-aided by unprecedented newsgathering technologies-and overly aggressive sales staff-spurred by unprecedented bottom-line pressures-often presents unprecedented challenges.

"Hardly a week goes by that I don't get a call from someone in television," said Poynter Institute ethicist Al Tompkins, "who's concerned about the business side encroaching on journalism, who wants to know what's appropriate journalistically. There's pressure being brought on news directors from general managers. The news directors tell me 'They keep asking, I keep saying no.' I don't want to be against everything.' News directors need a strong statement of principles about what's appropriate and inappropriate."

The Internet alone provides a host of unforeseen ethical dilemmas, Tompkins says. "If a story mentions a book," Tompkins poses, "is it unethical to put a link on your Web site to Barnes & Noble? If 'N Sync is having a concert in your town, what would be wrong with building a link to Ticketmaster? Would that be serving the viewer, or would that be seen as commercial encroachment?"

"The pressures on the business end have really started resulting in a lot of questions for people on the editorial end," said Brian Trauring, news director at WATE-TV in Knoxville, Tenn., and chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association's Ethics Task Force. "That's part of what's driving the decision to rewrite our ethics code."

The task force has spent much of this year rewriting the code, which was last revised in 1987. Seeking input from membership earlier this year, RTNDA Chairman and CNN Radio General Manager Robert Garcia said the new code would be "a document that preserves basic principles while offering realistic guidance that can grow and change with the profession."

News 12 New Jersey News Director and COO Jeff Marks was news director at WCSH(TV) Portland, Maine, and an RTNDA board member in 1987 when the code was last amended. "The first code was written in the 1960s," Marks, who would become RTNDA chairman a few years later, recalled. "It was lengthy and ponderous-longer than the current draft-and everyone agreed it needed to be updated. So we consulted a number of academics, people who had been involved in writing other codes-like the American Medical Association's. We wanted a simple, short code of ethics," he says. "One that could be framed and put on the wall, or carried in a wallet. That was one approach. We went a different way this time."

A far more exhaustive document than the current, comparatively compact code-a recent draft was more than four times the size of the existing code-the rewrite is being developed in three tiers. In the first tier, the task force, through workshops and public outreach, identified its basic principles-public trust, truth, fairness, integrity, independence and accountability. The second tier elaborates on those principles.

Drafts of the first two tiers have been circulating via the RTNDA's Web site and Communicator magazine. Final comments will be offered by RTNDA's executive leadership this week at the annual convention in Minneapolis, and the revised code will be presented to the full board of directors and eventually to the membership.

The third tier will contain checklists, coverage guidelines and ethical case studies. "In tier three we need to flesh things out," says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran. "The revised code talks about the need to preserve the independence of news from all kinds of corporate and advertiser pressure," says Cochran. "This is the first time that's been spelled out." The ethical challenges involving news and sales will be "addressed broadly in the code."

The third tier could be the most contentious, as well as the most useful, as it will deal with the practicalities of the principles outlined in the draft, including the use of surreptitious newsgathering and the question of who controls content. It will likely include or update existing coverage guidelines, including those written by the Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins and Bob Steele.

"Most of the coverage decisions we make in the course of the day have some basis in ethics," said Angie Kucharski, a task-force member and news director at KCNC-TV Denver." Kucharski, who had to negotiate the coverage challenges of the Columbine massacre while still new to the station, believes, "It's about balance, fairness [and] disclosure. It's about creating environments in local newsrooms that place importance on values by which we choose to operate."

Feedback apparently has prompted changes, sometimes to strengthen a proposed restriction, sometimes to add flexibility. A draft published in the August Communicator said that electronic journalists should "decline gifts or favors and will not accept expenses from the subject of a news story." A draft last week had instructed adherents to "decline gifts or favors and will not accept compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage."

Similarly, sponsorship of the news initially was "not to be used in any way to determine content." Prompted by Hearst-Argyle's Vice President for News, Fred Young, a draft last week said sponsorship "should not be used in any way to determine, restrict or manipulate content."

"[U]nlike most of our print colleagues," said Forrest Carr, news director at KGUN(TV) Tucson, "many of us are employed by corporations, which do not have their roots in journalism. We often report to supervisors, who are salesmen or accountants, not journalists, and who, quite frankly, have little or no understanding of journalistic ethics. We need language which speaks directly to these owners and managers."

The revised code, said Brian Trauring, "has been rewritten at least 10 times. We wanted to make it a process that gave plenty of opportunity for everybody and his brother to comment." While the code is not intended to be a divisive document, he says, "it will provide news people with ammunition," possibly against the sales side or general manager on "news and sales" issues.

Trauring says the third tier will be dynamic, incorporating future RTNDA ethics efforts, including workshops and committees. "Implementing and executing the code will be part of the third tier."

"Most news directors are pretty flexible," says Jim Willi, president of Audience Research & Development, which offers consulting to many local stations around the country. "It used to be that sales people were pretty much barred from the newsroom. News directors are more savvy now to the fact that sponsored segments are fine with the viewers-most viewers don't care-and if it helps them get that extra person or the Doppler radar they've been trying to get.It has to do with economics. Most companies are trying to figure out ways to keep those margins."

But that flexibility, Jeff Marks says, is why he'd rather lay down standards than let standards reflect even accepted practices in some areas.

"News directors are either choosing to, or being forced to, cut corners to rachet up profit margins," says Poynter ethicist Bob Steele. The goal of any news directors' code, he believes, "should be to help news directors clearly articulate what they stand for and make reasonable arguments to protect their integrity. It doesn't mean a news director cannot look for creative ways to develop sponsorship for some elements of the news product. But that creativity must not undermine essential journalistic principles and must not erode journalistic credibility."

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