Ethical lapses

When I was working on the desk of a medium-sized daily quite a number of years ago, I found myself in a layout dilemma. I was putting together an inside page and had a very good close-up picture of a kid playing a trombone. My problem was that I had laid out the page so the kid and the trombone would be facing off the page. I was pondering the problem when the city editor walked by.

“Why don’t you just flip the picture,” she said.

Flipping meant you turned the picture (the backshop could do it easily by just turning the negative over in the copy camera) so that the kid would be facing the other way — into the interior of the page rather than off the page.

“Okay,” I said, and that was that.

The picture was flipped, the page looked good. The newspaper went to press, was printed and delivered the next day, and the world continued to turn.

An ethical lapse?

It certainly was. What we did — for the convenience of following a layout rule — made the picture an inaccurate representation. We turned the kid from a right-hander into a southpaw. Back then (more than 20 years ago), it didn’t bother us a whit. Today, it would probably land us on Jim Romenesko’s column in Poynter.org and spark an internal investigation at the newspaper.

And so it should.

Journalists today — and the profession as a whole — has become much more sensitive to the rules and practices that we all profess to uphold. And we have the means of exposing our ehtical lapses much more quickly and widely. In recent weeks (the spring of 2005), we have seen the following:

• An Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter was fired for lifting quotes for his story about the Daytona 500 from other newspapers.

• A reporter for the Tampa Tribune resigned after writing a story about a woman who had been bar-hopping and had emerged to find her Jeep towed. The woman identified in the story had been home on the evening in question and had lent her Jeep to a friend.

• The Los Angeles Times dismissed a reporter after he had written a story about fraternity hazing at California State University at Chico. The editors had a story suspicion that he had made up the quotes he used in the story, and although he denied doing this, the reporter could not substantiate them.

• The Boston Glode dismissed a freelancer because she wrote about a Canadian seal hunt that did not happen. The hunt was scheduled to occur but was postponed. The writer submitted a story that described the hunt even though it had not taken place.

• Sportswriter Mitch Albom submitted a column for the Sunday Detroit Free Press that described how two professional basketball players had attended the NCAA Final Four’s semifinal round on Saturday to see the team from their alma mater play. Albom turned in the column before the game occurred, and it was read by at least a couple of editors. The column then appeared in print, but the players mentioned never made the trip to see the game. The newspaper took unspecified disciplinary action against Albom and the editors, but no one was dismissed.

It might be odd to suggest, after this litany, that journalism is doing better than it was 20 years ago when I made the ethical lapse mentioned above. But I think it is. And so does Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland College of Journalism. He is quoted in a column by Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, as saying:

Because we are self-policing so much better, it makes it seem like there’s a tremendous cascade of ethical violations. There used to be a lot more in the way of shenanigans and monkey business that we either didn’t know about or, if it was caught, it was winked at. There was a boys-will-be-boys quality about it — they were mostly boys — and they would get a slap on the wrist at best.

Journalism is not a mistake-free profession. It never will be. Even the most experienced and highly paid journalists will lapse — for a variety of reasons that will range from understandable to unforgivable.

But, unlike other professionals, we don’t seem to mind publicizing our mistakes.

Jim Stovall (May 2, 2005)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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