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Ethics codes are invaluable in student journalism, but not as a guide for punishment


by Gina Catanzarite
There appears to be no disagreement – in our school communities or nationwide – that a journalist’s role is to report accurate, fair and objective news.  Journalism courses at the college level, in high school, and even middle schools teach a variety of research and reporting techniques to address accuracy —but in order to teach concepts such as “fairness” and “objectivity,” journalism lessons must naturally address issues of ethical decision-making.

Members of the student media and their advisers study and often adopt Codes of Ethics developed by professional media societies.  But a distressing trend is emerging in our schools:  Administrators who demand that student journalists or media advisers be punished for perceived breaches of these codes.

My question is this:  How can an ethics code logically be used as a tool for punishment when it is not possible to enforce such a code?

About this post and the author

Information in this blog was adapted from an assignment for the graduate-level course Ethics of Mass Communication at Kent State University, Sept. 2013, and is a guest column to the Scholastic Press Rights Commission. Gina Catanzarite is a television producer, writer, and teacher who has produced documentaries and special projects nationally and locally since 1987. She counts eight Emmy awards, 20 Emmy nominations, and five Telly Awards among her professional honors. Catanzarite has served as an adjunct faculty member at Point Park University in Pittsburgh since 2005, and at Robert Morris University since 2010. She currently is pursuing her Masters for Journalism Educators at Kent State University.

But therein lies the main point of contention:  Can an ethics code be enforced?  Some say yes.  As both a broadcast journalist and a broadcast educator, I say the answer is a resounding no

Attempts to enforce an ethics code are misguided, and attempts to punish violations are inconsistent with the pedagogy we so highly value at our schools.  They are also infringements of our First Amendment freedoms.

When one breaks the law, that is enforceable and indeed, we respect that as journalists just as we respect it as citizens.  We understand and accept any consequences that result from a violation of absolute rules.  But can a breach of ethics be enforced like breaches of the law?  Respected leadership at the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) have debated that question for decades and they also determined that the answer is no because ethics simply cannot be interpreted by a single set of absolute rules and limits.

No one set of rules, says the SPJ, however detailed, can possibly apply to all of the nuances and ambiguities of legitimate expression, and a free press is most certainly a form of legitimate expression.

Similarly, no set of rules could ever definitively determine one absolute course of action at every single juncture of the newsgathering process.

Some would argue that other professions – from doctors to lawyers to even hairstylists – have managed to establish rules for licensing to practice so why can’t journalists do the same.  Allow me to offer the following analogy:  Every time a surgeon operates on a patient, he or she makes an incision and finds all of the organs situated in the expected places because the biology of the human body has been successfully mapped right down to the molecular level.  Because of those absolutes – because of the established scientific patterns of biology – that doctor can practice in a consistent manner from surgery to surgery.

But what if those established scientific patterns of biology did not exist?

What if, every single time a doctor made an incision, the organs were situated in a different place inside the body?   What if, every single time a doctor performed surgery, a random set of uncontrollable and indefinable factors changed the way cells reacted to medicine?  The way tissue reacted to being cut or stitched?  The way the neurological system responded to anesthesia?  The way veins prevented blood from backing up or the way arteries endured blood pressure?   What set of absolute rules and limits would be used to license a doctor then?  Could the doctor be punished if a patient died?  If so, by what criteria?  One could not point to any rule or limit the doctor violated.  One could not determine how the doctor should have reacted at each juncture of the surgical process because there would be no absolutes on which the doctor could have based his or her behaviors.

In that same vein, each and every story a journalist pursues is unique.
• Do you contend there is one absolute rule for gathering data that works when the journalist is doing a story about a hot-dog-eating contest and works equally as well when that journalist is on the scene doing a story about a shooting rampage at an elementary school?
• Do you contend there is one absolute rule for interviewing people that would equally apply to an alleged serial killer and also to a parent who just lost a child in a car crash?
• Do you contend there is one absolute rule for verifying information when some information comes from written sources and other comes from human sources?

And what about the states of mind of those human sources?  Does one absolute rule apply to questioning a person who is outraged after being accused of criminal behavior as well as to a person who is in shock after witnessing a horrific tragedy as well as to the person who is the victim of that horrific tragedy?

In fact, one cannot name an absolute rule for how journalists should act or react in any of the instances I just described, or in the countless others they encounter every day in pursuit of the news.  And if absolute rules and limits don’t exist, then neither does a basis for punishment.

And so, if we cannot establish absolute rules, we can try to establish some general guidelines – guidelines for behaviors that will not knowingly do harm, guidelines for independent actions that will not knowingly compromise the accuracy of the information being gathered, or the fairness with which it is authenticated, organized and reported.

One might call that guideline a Code of Ethics.

And while the code cannot be enforced, it does not excuse journalists from the responsibility of acting conscientiously and independently.  Indeed, as stated by the Society for Professional Journalists, the code provides “a framework to evaluate ethical behavior.”

We take no exception to having our behaviors being evaluated.  But when those behaviors are evaluated, they should be done so in the context of pedagogy and best practices so that we may teach our journalism students, not punish them.  Only then can student journalists grow to act consistently and ethically, not because we expect it of them, but rather, because they have come to expect if of themselves.

To treat an ethics code in any other way devalues our educational process and ignores our guaranteed freedoms.


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