Letter to the Editor

Would code make newsmedia more ethical?

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Dear Editor:

Over the past two years, there have been major ethical failures in journalism. Everything from made up quotes and stories, to plagiarism and accusations of biased reporting have gained wide public attention.

With this ongoing parade of scandals, there has been growing talk about the need for a code of ethics among journalists. Some groups have even begun to float the idea of licensing journalists, or at least requiring them to pursue continuing education like other professions.

But the fact is, the Society of Professional Journalism (which journalists can voluntarily join) has a well-established code of ethics. That organization, as well as other media companies and educa-tional institutions, also conduct ethics training for journalists.

Quality training is readily available. And frankly, some of the worst national-level violators of the journalism code of ethics had attended many different ethics training sessions.

I grimace every time I hear the unreasonable expectations that people place on ethical codes.

First, codes of ethics do not make people ethical. They don't make bad people good, and they don't make people with poor judgment become wise.

I was reminded of this after the recent hurricanes brought out scam artists and unethical behaviors, even during relief efforts. If we had a Disaster Code of Ethics would this have changed? The answer, of course, is no.

Most of the worst examples of ethical lapses we have seen among journalists in the past few years would not have been stopped because of a man-made and written ethics code.

According to the Character Counts program taught through 4-H, there are two aspects of ethics: discernment (knowing right from wrong) and discipline (having the moral will power to do what is right).

A code may define what is acceptable and provide a basis for imposing penalties on those who don't follow the code, but, unless the code reinforces an established ethical culture, it won't do much to make people do what is right.

Don't get me wrong. It is a good idea to set standards of conduct in certain professions and outline what is allowed under existing law. In effect, ethics codes transform one perspective of a moral obligation into a binding rule.

But a code can't make people ethical and neither can workshops or a textbook.

Research by the Josephson Institute of Ethics has shown that people do not automatically develop good moral character. Efforts must be made to develop the values and abilities necessary for moral decision making and conduct, and there must be a base line or standard.

Character education is an obligation of families, faith communities, schools and other human-serving groups. Positive character development is best achieved when these groups work together. And every adult, including journalists, have the responsibility to teach and model core ethical values and promote the development of good character.

If it is character that the journalism profession is missing, then much more is needed than just an ethics code.


David Burton,

University of Extension civic communication specialist

Springfield, Missouri