Columnists Get Ethics Tips at Convention

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By: Dave Astor

At a time when ethics are a huge issue in journalism, The Poynter Institute’s dean of faculty offered six simple rules for columnists to stay on the up and up. But Keith Woods added that these guidelines have gray areas.

“There are no universal, all-inclusive answers,” Woods told attendees Friday at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference.

The six rules include “don’t steal,” “attribute conscientiously,” “don’t make stuff up,” “acknowledge your ties,” “treat people fairly,” and “pursue accuracy aggressively.” Then Woods explained some of the caveats.

He said, for instance, that columnists sometimes inadvertently write a few lines based on something they read or heard elsewhere. “With the amount of information we shuffle in and out of our minds, we might wind up borrowing a passage” without realizing it, noted Woods. This, he observed, is not an enormous problem as long as a whole column is not borrowed in this fashion. But if columnists are aware that they’re using someone else’s idea, information, or words, “tell the reader where it came from,” said Woods. “You can even have fun with the attribution so that it doesn’t come across as bland ‘journalese.'”

Woods added that columnists, unlike other journalists, have the leeway to make things up. He mentioned the late Mike Royko’s conversations with Slats Grobnik, and Washington Post Writers Group columnist William Raspberry’s dialogues with a fictional cab driver. The key, said Woods, is for readers to be aware of what’s going on. A columnist who has used a fictional device for a long time usually has a readership who knows this device is fictional. A newer columnist making stuff up needs to tip off readers via such methods as placing clues in the piece or being so over-the-top that there’s no doubt about what’s going on. “It’s a craft issue,” said Woods. “Do you have the capacity to pull it off?”

Self-syndicated humor columnist Rick Horowitz, speaking from the audience, did say writers have to accept that not every reader will realize something is made up. He recalled doing a column mentioning alligators who came through plumbing pipes to take photos, and one reader asked if Horowitz was joking or not!

Discussing his sixth rule, Woods said accuracy is important not only for accuracy’s sake, but because many readers interpret mistakes as an indication that columnists are being unfair.

The Poynter official — a former sports and Op-Ed columnist for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans — also offered three other ethics guidelines that overlapped somewhat with the aforementioned six rules. They include “tell the truth as fully as possible,” “remain independent of undue influences,” and “minimize harm to vulnerable people.”

Woods concluded: “Ethics are not holding you back. They release you to do more, not shackle you to do less.”

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