Culture Magazine

Journalist Ethics: An Oxymoron?

By Fsrcoin


I heard a talk by Rosemary Armao, a journalism professor at SUNY Albany, investigative editor in Eastern Europe and other foreign locales, and a regular WAMC radio panelist.

She began by posing the question, can one be both a good journalist and a good human being? To explore this, she discussed the case of Oliver Sipple, who became an instant hero in 1975 by shoving a woman trying to shoot at President Ford, deflecting her aim. Sipple was a gay rights activist but not wholly “out of the closet.”

News stories revealing such personal details had an apparent role in his eventual suicide.

Armao asked audience members whether they would have published Sipple’s gay background. A large majority said no. But her own answer (and mine) was a definite yes, because Sipple’s act made him a public figure, and journalism’s responsibility is to inform the public. She said a journalist’s job is to get the truth out, and he or she cannot control the consequences.

Armao posited international standards for journalism: accuracy, fairness, a right to reply, and minimizing any harm. However, she cited some examples wherein she felt that journalists did not properly fulfill their role.

One was the Iraq War, where reporters “embedded” with military units got caught up in the testosterone-soaked environment. She also faulted the media for failing to press, over the years, the issue of gun control, prior to the Newtown shootings — whereas many citizens wrongly criticized publication of shooter Adam Lanza’s name, as supposedly “glorifying” his crime.

More generally, Armao saw a big problem in the decline of professional journalism, undermined by a plethora of competing sources, many of them “citizen journalists.” Economics has been driving out reporting in the field as just too costly. The result is rushed and sloppy stories plagued by errors; justification of anything if it makes money; a loss of decorum and professionalism; and blandness, with a fear of offending anyone or taking a controversial stand. (Pertinent here was the case of Schenectady Gazette columnist Carl Strock, forced out due to pressures from advertisers over his critical scrutiny of religion and, especially, Israel. I’ve reviewed his excellent book.)

Also relevant, I think, is the subsequent CNN Malaysian airplane coverage. Did CNN believe viewers were interested in only that one story, to the virtual exclusion of other news, for weeks on end?

Surely symptomatic of something gone awry.

Pointing a finger of blame for what she decried, Armao said the culprit is the public, often denigrating the media for the wrong things while oblivious to really valid criticisms. Many people think the press makes too much information public (as in the mentioned Lanza and Sipple cases). Indeed, half of Americans tell pollsters the First Amendment goes too far and there is too much press freedom. (Maybe they’d prefer living in, say, Iran.)

Meantime there are silly calls for “balanced” (or happy) news. As a result of all this, people don’t actually support good journalism. While the media is often criticized for favoring trash news over substantive issue coverage, in fact there is plenty of the latter, but it’s the trash that gets the most eyeballs. And too many young people ignore news media altogether, getting their “news” through social media.

Finally, as to her initial question — can one be both a good journalist and a good human being? — Armao answered No! News is inherently about bad stuff, and the very nature of journalism is to be rude and intrusive, to get the story. But one audience member suggested that if a journalist is true to the profession’s standards, in giving the public truth, that’s being a good person.


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