Sunday, October 24, 2004

Trust is the key of a journalist's career

One of my more popular journalistic reference books when I moved between journalism jobs back in the 1970s was a tattered copy of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. It was an account of some of the conflicts of interest journalists should avoid, from getting all sides of the story to not covering stories where you had a personal stake.I always tacked it up on whatever wall space or bulletin board came with my desk and typewriter. (Ah, yes, those were the days!)My first newspaper jobs were at very small newspapers, which did not have their own ethical codes of conduct and really didn't have editors who had a lot of time to talk about ethics.Readers wanted to know if I could be trusted. They insisted I give them reasons to trust me, and they did challenge me when they felt that I was showing bias, or failed to tell their side of an issue, or participated in the community in a way that made them weary and bewildered about my motives for stories.

I learned the most valuable asset a newspaper had is its credibility, the trust of its readers. If they didn't trust us, they wouldn't read us. That trustwas in my hands and those of every journalist at a newspaper 24/7.When I was a reporter, I found myself drawing lines on what I could do to avoid conflicts of interest. I didn't make political contributions, I didn't cover organizations I participated in, I didn't pay for information, I didn't let sources buy things for me, give me tickets, shirts...nothing), I made sure my stories presented different perspectives, I tried to be clear about my sourcing and was careful to label content as news stories, analyses or columns.It was nothing earth-shattering that I did. It was simply how conscientious and serious journalists were supposed to do their job.I don't work in newspapers anymore because of health issues and have found a new career, one where codes of ethical conduct is still desired.

Last week a story about one of the Twin Cities newspapers made me think. It was about reporters being scolded for attending a concert that was deemed political. Some thought the action was taken because the concert was anti-Bush and that didn't sit well with the owners and operators of the newspaper. Others were surprised to learn that any workplace could dictate what its employees did on their own time and worried about a return to a McCarthy era.I don't think it was a new policy. It's a choice we make when we become journalists. In some professions, to do it well, to do it right, you have to agree to live by certain standards. Fact is, many of our decisions about what's acceptable or unacceptable ethical behavior is situational, meaning it depends on the journalist and what role he or she plays in the newsroom. I make those calls along with a group of top editors. Journalists who cover politics and government are diligent about potential conflicts of interest and avoid making political contributions or displaying yard signs or bumper stickers. Journalists who cover business take care not to invest in companies they write about. Why? They know their coverage could potentially cause a swing in stock price and they want to avoid an appearance that they gained financially from a positive story.

Yes, journalists vote, and join churches, and get involved in their schools and neighborhood organizations. But they take care about the roles they play and about disclosing to their editors the extent of their activities.It's simply easier for readers to have trust that a reporter is open-minded and trained to tell the whole story, to have multiple sources, to look for documents and records to back up statements, to check the background of sources if they don't see the journalist in a conflict of interest. The election season brings a heightened awareness of what's fair, particularly in a close election as we are having this fall. Credibility — the trust of readers — is the most important asset.

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