A Debate About Ethics Code p. 9

By: Mark Fitzgerald A Debate About Ethics Code p. 9

Editors join actor in endorsing the concept of a written
ethics code that details standards of journalist conduct,
but libel lawyer says it could hurt newspapers
DURING THE NEXT year, Associated Press Managing Editor members will be debating a draft ethics code that details standards of journalist conduct ranging from checking quotes to quitting discriminatory private clubs.
On the last day of its recent 59th annual convention in Minneapolis, APME provided a preview of that debate with an all-star panel of editors, lawyers, politicians ? and one real Hollywood star.
""In the polls that are taken . . . I would like to see the esteem of journalists go up instead of down. And I think that a written [ethics] code is a first step towards that,"" actor Tom Selleck said.
The former Magnum, P.I. star ? whose conservative Republican views are well-known ? joined the editor of the Hartford Courant, managing editor of the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal and president of the Associated Press Sports Editors in endorsing the APME draft ethics code.
As Selleck expressed his support, those journalists argued that increasingly skeptical readers are demanding more of newspapers along an entire range of ethical conduct.
""We've got ourselves in a credibility crisis because we have avoided these codes,"" said Jennifer Carroll, managing editor of the State Journal.
""To some extent, you have to be willing to say what you stand for,"" said Dale Bye, APSE president and sports editor of the Kansas City Star.
However, First Amendment lawyer Richard Winfield warned journalists that the APME draft code may be too willing to say too much.
""These codes do not exist in a vacuum,"" said Winfield, AP's general counsel. ""Newspapers have many adversaries out there: Libel plaintiffs' attorneys, politicians, government agencies, prosecutors"" and other special interests.
The APME draft code is so detailed ? especially about what constitutes deception and conflicts of interest ? that it could provide potent courtroom ammunition for those adversaries, Winfield argued.
""To the extent that you knowingly and willingly give these adversaries entry points, hooks and advantages . . . you have made [an opposing attorney] able to prove a case of 'journalistic malpractice,' "" he said.
Winfield noted, for instance, that the APME code condemns deceptive reporting techniques, such as hidden tape recorders or impersonation, as ""outside the bounds of generally accepted journalistic behavior.""
However, the draft code then has a long series of circumstances that could justify deception, he said.
""I think it is naive, dangerous [and] will cause far more harm than it will help to provide the public with a list of methods to [carry out] an 'objectionable' practice,"" Winfield said.
The panelists also debated the legal effect of the draft code's language on accuracy.
According to the code, ""Newspapers should develop and use safeguards to avoid error. These should include systematic verification of facts and quotations and corroboration of critical information.""
Winfield said, ""I read that as an obligation. My point is that giving a blueprint, a road map, a hook to your adversary to use in entering your paper . . . on balance is far more injurious than having the kind of broad language the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel has in its ethics code.""
Indeed, Sun-Sentinel managing editor Earl Maucker said his principal objection to the draft code is that ""it's overwritten . . . too long, too laborious and it needs to be simplified.""
""This seems to have been put together over the past year by every politically correct committee that is out there, which added its own little nuances,"" said Maucker, who described the Sun-Sentinel's ethics code as three paragraphs long.
Courant editor Michael Waller, however, said the detail is important in reassuring readers.
""To do all this orally, to keep it vague and then believe that [all journalists] are going to do it ? we're just kidding ourselves,"" said Waller, whose newspaper has a written ethics code.
Waller also argued that having a written code may not be as harmful in court as some lawyers think and may even help convince jurors that a paper is trying to do the right thing.
Similarly, non-journalists on the APME panel urged stringent standards.
""The public might be shocked that journalists will not go on record to say, 'We will make every effort to verify' critical ? and that's what it involves ? critical information before printing that critical information,"" said panel moderator Michael Josephson of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics.
""I'm surprised that in 1993, you are still grappling with a serious effort like an ethics code,"" said Indian activist Vernon Bellecourt, chairman of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, who also uses the Chippewa name Waubu-Inini. ""I'd have thought you'd have settled this by now.""

?"I think it is naive, dangerous [and] will cause far more harm than it will help to provide the public with a list of methods to [carry out] an 'objectionable' practice,"" Winfield said.

?Bettmann/Reuter photo/Gary Hershorn

?Actor Tom Selleck, shown above with bat in hand hugging former Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych after hitting a home run off him during a celebrity hitting contest, told newspaper executives at the recent Associated Press Managing Editors convention that he favors written ethics standards for journalists.


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