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The Golden Rule #7

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism

As author and UCLA Professor of Social Research Methodology Mike Rose once wrote in Lives on the Boundary, “Mistakes are the place where education starts.” Unfortunately, for too many journalists, mistakes are the place where good journalism ends.

For years, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics has outlined the template for good, ethical journalism. That code states, “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly,” and that sentence contains three mandates: the admission, the correction, and the speed in which a mistake is corrected.

So, before I type further, I should admit one of my own: in April, I wrote The Golden Rule #1, and in that dispatch I wrote, “wikis themselves raise ethical concerns because they allow any user to update or edit the content. I have no idea who Robert Niles is, but he has edited the content on this page.”

My second statement was a mistake: I should have searched further and identified Robert Niles, who is the editor of Online Journalism Review. His identity is available for anyone who cares to look; I embarrassingly didn’t look hard enough. I realized my error and should have corrected it sooner. Two out of three isn’t bad.

Some people may not call that a mistake, but I do. According to the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary, a mistake means, “to blunder in the choice of; to misunderstand the meaning or intention of: misinterpret; to make a wrong judgment of the character or ability of; to identify wrongly: confuse with another; to be wrong.” I (mis)took Niles as an average wiki user and not the journal’s editor. Mistakes are not, at least according to these definitions, grounded in factual errors. Mistakes are embedded in our misunderstandings, misinterpretations, mischoices, and misidentifications. Daily, I read and watch journalists make mistakes; rarely do I read or watch them correct those mis-takes.

Journalism professor, media critic, and blog Jeff Jarvis has opined about the speed in which journalists, through new media, can correct their mistakes. In his popular blog, BuzzMachine, he writes, “The internet can be better at corrections than old media. A fix can be attached to an error where it occurs, and many online denizens pride themselves on confessing missteps faster than their print and broadcast counterparts.” However, Jarvis warns, new media can conversely spread misinformation faster than old media. This is exactly why correcting online mistakes is so important.

I started thinking more about the power of admitting mistakes for two reasons: Rudy Giuliani and Tracy Thompson. During a recent debate, Giuliani and the other Republican presidential candidates were asked the following question: “What is the defining mistake of your life and why?” Some of the candidates gave thoughtful answers; others gave self-righteous ones. However, Giuliani said (quoting directly from a transcript),

“To have a description of my mistakes in 30 seconds?

(LAUGHTER)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Defining mistake, Mayor. Just one defining mistake.

GIULIANI: Your father is a priest. I’m going to explain it to your father, not to you, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. I guess that’s a pass.

Sure, the mayor astutely dodged the question; however, he also implied he has made many mistakes and opened himself to further scrutiny of what that implied laundry list entails. He candidly humanized himself and connected to the American people better than any candidate in either party has done thus far in the debates.

Thompson is an author and contributing writer for the Committee of Concerned Journalists. She essentially did the same, but in a journalistic context in “Learning from Our Mistakes”. However, unlike Giuliani, she describes in detail her errors. Her words, intentions, and point of view are refreshing. For those same reasons, I enjoy ESPN’s

Pardon the Interruption, which features Washington Post columnists Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser debating current sports topics. The show is entertaining, but since both men are acclaimed journalists, they realize the ethical value of admitting mistakes. That’s why they have Tony Reali, aka “Stat Boy,” correcting their errors to conclude most shows.

During the past several years, journalists’ credibility has been getting whacked. If journalists did a better job of admitting their mistakes, that credibility would begin to rear its attractive face once again.

Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.

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