There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair and rending of clothes lately about WPRI-TV Providence, R.I. But, if you're a news director with a rock in your hand ready to hurl, hang on to it for a moment. I'll bet I can prove you don't have the standing to throw it.
Did WPRI goof when it assigned a reporter to a safety sidebar at his own nightclub? Sure. But that's not the story. How did WPRI react to the Category 5 public-relations hurricane that howled ashore when that nightclub burned, killing dozens? It hired a PR firm. That is the story. But it's not just about WPRI, so lay off. It's about our industry.
Here's a test. You can try this in any newsroom. Ask co-workers to write down, on a scale of 1 to 10, their estimation of their own ethical makeup. Then get them to rate the ethics of their newsroom. Average and compare the two scores. You'll probably find that individuals rate themselves higher than the group.
How can the whole be less than the sum of its parts? Answer: because ethics are not something you have. They're something you do. Without a process for ethical decision-making, a group of ethical journalists may nevertheless fail to act ethically.
If you study ethics, you discover something interesting. A process for ethical decision-making does not guarantee the best possible decision. What it does do is help reach a decision that the newsroom can explain and defend.
Self-accountability is, in fact, a basic ethical requirement. The Society of Professional Journalists realizes this. In 1996, it added an important point to its Code of Ethics: Be accountable. If you don't have a way to do that, how can you claim to be ethical?
News flash: Of 1,500 daily newspapers in the U.S., about 40 have a system or a procedure for responding to questions about their journalism. Care to guess how many local TV news operations do that? Maybe half a dozen. These statistics paint a picture of ethical failure.
Still want to throw stones at WPRI? Put down the rock, step away from your indignation. What does your newsroom stand for? Does it have values? Can you express them? Doing so is the first step toward accountability.
Having stated what you stand for—holding the powerful accountable, respecting privacy, giving voice to the voiceless, whatever—how might you invite the public to hold you to it? How about an on-air or Web-based feedback segment? Here's a guarantee: A newsroom that regularly explains itself to the public will act ethically. It will have to.
If you're concerned about your newsroom's ethics, don't wait for a co-worker to take action. Get off your fundament and make it happen yourself. Network with colleagues. Put a plan for accountability together and take it to the managers. If you are a manager, go rattle some cages.
Our public has a huge stake in what we do. We owe it to them to do it better. Making that happen is not someone else's challenge. It's yours.