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The Golden Rule #2

Musings on the ethics of contemporary journalism

The Washington Post’s Tom Ricks is one of America’s most respected journalists who has diligently covered The Pentagon for years. His expertise and experience in covering military affairs is encyclopedic. His book Fiasco has outlined the “complete failure” America has launched in Iraq. Many of his colleagues at The Washington Post have also written similarly engaging books about different aspects of the Iraq war.

However, while Fiasco has received much critical attention (and has sold many copies), what has not been addressed are the ethical ramifications that emerge when reporters like Ricks publish books that argue positions about a war they are still being paid to report and cover. While The Washington Post, like many newspapers, typically offers sabbaticals or some other compensatory reprieve for reporters while they are writing such books, mainly to relieve them of their regular journalistic beats, Ricks and others do ultimately return. Unfortunately, they cannot fully divorce their journalistic objectivity from the positions they argue in such books. And this is a fundamental problem of journalism ethics.

Clearly, Ricks now has a financial interest in having readers believe the Iraq war is a fiasco, so how can average readers of The Washington Post be guaranteed he is exhausting every source, angle, and piece of information for his Post articles. Ricks is not alone in profiting off privileged access, but he is arguably one of the most reputable journalists to write such a book. He has done America a great service in writing Fiasco. But how has he served journalism? The conflict of interest here is too obvious for me to ignore. Why are so many others in the mainstream media also ignoring it? As the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

As many newspapers continue to support reporters’ efforts to publish information across multiple platforms, and subsequently, promote their brand name through mediums beyond newspapers, they must recognize how alternative publishing impacts the ethical standards of their primary news medium. Not all mediums are created equally according to the same ethical standards: the context and technology of the medium, to name just a few factors, dictates the ethical standards. Newspaper reporters have more freedom, both journalistically and ethically, when writing books or on Websites or blogs. What obligation do they have to their primary medium, which is usually a newspaper? More importantly, what obligation do they have to that newspaper’s audience?

***

Peter Osnos, a Senior Fellow for Media at The Century Foundation, has made some important observations on this dilemma in an article he published on the foundation’s Website in October 2006. In “Great Books and the Reporters Who Write Them,” Osnos challenges the conventional wisdom that the newspaper industry is falling apart. He notes that newspapers are still “solidly profitable,” and he sees book publishing as an opportunity to help stabilize the shaky ground many news organizations find themselves balancing upon. He writes, “The owners and editors of our newspapers and magazines, which support all these reporters in getting the material they turn into books, should align themselves with that process and secure benefits both financial and for their brands from the results…The concept of multi-platform distribution of information is central to the evolving news business. So is the awareness of leading publications that their brand names are valuable and can be leveraged in ways well beyond the daily or weekly output of printed pages.”

Although it focuses too narrowly on economics, Osnos’ point is well taken because he clearly understands the relationships such books have to the newspapers that ultimately support them. Books like Fiasco can be leveraged to help financially support their authors’ newspapers’ bottom lines. But at what cost? “Great journalism, great books, and great newspapers depend on each other,” Osnos writes. True, but the real question is this: How should they depend on each other?

Chris Justice is an Assistant Professor of English & Mass Communication at The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, United States.

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