By: DAVID NOACK
USA TODAY ‘exempt,’ but likely to follow
At a time when the credibility of the news media has been battered by a number of recent ethical missteps ? all self-inflicted ? Gannett Co. Inc. has unveiled a sweeping set of ethical guidelines for its 73 community newspapers.
Stung by one of journalism’s high-profile ethical stumbles involving The Cincinnati Enquirer and Chiquita Brands International, the company’s newspaper division created a detailed list of ethical dos and don’ts, which were announced last week at the Gannett Newspaper Management Conference in Arlington, Va. It’s believed to be the first corporate-ethics guide that is newsroom-specific and goes beyond conflict-of-interest situations. It includes how to deal with anonymous sources, when to grant or withhold attribution, and even how to handle wire copy, which sometimes includes comments from unnamed sources.
Other newspaper chains, such as Knight Ridder, Freedom Communications Inc., and the E.W. Scripps Co., have companywide guidelines dealing with conflicts of interest and professional conduct, but they are not newsroom-specific. Individual papers can adopt their own newsroom ethics codes. The Associated Press Managing Editors has issued an ethics policy for general use.
Gannett’s premiere newspaper, USA TODAY, is not covered by the new ethics guidelines. The paper is part of a separate division of the company. USA TODAY does not have written ethics guidelines, but relies on in-house newsletters and memos dealing with specific ethical situations. Gannett officials say, however, that USA TODAY will probably follow the policy’s basic principles.
The guidelines were drafted in reaction to a series of journalistic lapses involving The Boston Globe, a CNN report on the use of a nerve gas to kill American defectors in Vietnam, and the Enquirer debacle. In the latter case, the paper’s former lead investigative reporter, Mike Gallagher, illegally accessed the voice-mail messages of Chiquita officials while writing a series of stories on the business practices of the world’s largest banana producer. Gallagher was fired, and the paper had to renounce the series on Page One and pay Chiquita more than $10 million to stave off a lawsuit.
Phil Currie, senior vice president for news at Gannett, says an initial March meeting of key outside editors, lawyers, and ethics observers was a “brainstorming” session that helped to boil down the five main principles of the new ethics code: seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way; serving the public interest; exercising fair play; maintaining independence; and acting with integrity. A dozen Gannett newspapers already have an ethics policy.
“This will be the minimal code; in other words, the newspapers would be expected to follow these guidelines. It’s very possible that an individual local paper may want to add to this in some fashion. For example, if a paper decided, since we have a section on unnamed sources ? that [they] are not going to use any, period, they can do that,” says Currie, who adds that the editor at each of the newspapers is responsible for implementing the guidelines.
While ethics codes are not unusual, they are mainly for internal use and the public is unaware of them. But Currie says Gannett wants to publicize its ethics guidelines.
“One of the key parts of this is our decision to make this public, and we will in time. We want to do proper training at our newsrooms first. We will conduct training over the next couple of months. ? We are trying to establish a higher standard of credibility with our readers. ? I think in the broad sense that you may get some more scrutiny or exposure; I think it’s much better for us to make clear what we believe in at high level and let the public know about it,” says Currie.
He questions whether having such guidelines in place could have prevented the Enquirer episode, since the lead reporter lied to his editors.
“Everyone there would have been aware of how strongly we felt about these things. ? In that case you had a reporter who broke the law and lied to his editors about it and ended up pleading guilty to two felonies. I don’t know that you can prevent a specific individual from doing that. But I think what [the ethics code] can do is raise the level and also make sure the scrutiny of stories is there,” says Currie.
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., says lawyers debate the wisdom of having a written ethics code.
“You’ll often hear the excuse from journalists that they wanted to have an ethics code, and their lawyer wouldn’t let them. I don’t know that this is really true. It is true that lawyers worry that plaintiffs’ lawyers will focus on deviations from the guidelines as evidence of actual malice, negligence, or some other fault standard. Depending on how the guidelines are worded, you might even cobble together a breach-of-contract theory based on ‘I promised my readers I would do X, I didn’t, and therefore, I breached my contract with my readers.’ [This argument] would probably be thrown out and could be averted by careful wording, I think. But in these days of crazy lawsuits, I don’t think I would rule it out,” says Kirtley.
David Petty, executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., says that with mainstream and tabloid journalism intersecting at times, it’s important that reporters and editors are clear in the standards that Gannett seeks to uphold.
“The standards that have been adopted are our industry’s basic values, but in the days of ‘gotcha’ journalism, some of our staffers may be unclear on the high value we place on them,” says Petty.
“The public is understandably confused about what the media values are. Unfortunately, most newspaper readers see little difference between their daily newspaper and the wide range of TV ‘news’ programs, the tabloids, and Internet rumor. A strong communication of these basic standards can help to clear up any confusion with staffers and help readers see the difference in coverage standards used by the various media outlets.”