Now that most major news outlets on television and many of the nation’s largest newspapers are little more than public relations agencies for President Obama and propaganda organs for liberal causes, I wonder if the concept of journalistic ethics is dead. In fact, before writing this column I wondered if a code of ethics even existed for the profession of journalism.  I decided to look into the question.  My research took me to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).  As it turns out, there are some surprisingly high expectations of journalists when it comes to ethics. Unfortunately, every day practices that have become common in journalism seldom live up to these expectations.

Consider the preamble to the SPJ’s Code of Ethics: “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of Democracy.  The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.  Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.  Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

The SPJ’s Code of Ethics goes on to provide a long list of do’s and don’ts for journalists.  The list includes statements which explain that journalists should:

  • “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.  Deliberate distortion is never permissible.”
  • “Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.”

There are more such statements to guide the conduct of journalists in the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, but I think you get the picture.  Even a cursory observation of mainstream news programs and newspapers will reveal that contemporary journalists either do not subscribe to the SPJ’s Code of Ethics or a lot of them simply ignore it.

The SPJ posits that the public enlightenment provided by journalists is “the forerunner of justice and the foundation of Democracy.”  I do not agree that it is, but I do agree that it should be. As citizens of a Democracy we depend on a free and independent press to hold politicians and other public officials accountable for what they say and do.  Accurate information honestly presented is the best counterweight to self-serving politicians who like to play fast and loose with the truth.  But the contribution journalism can make to justice and Democracy is negated when journalists lose their objectivity and become—by commission or omission—advocates of the politicians and public officials they are supposed to hold accountable.

According to the SPJ, journalists are supposed to seek the truth and provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.  This requirement does not comport well with the journalistic practice of splicing and editing interviews to distort the meaning, substance, or context of what was said by the parties involved, a practice that is all too common these days. But the problem with providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues is much larger than biased editing.  The concepts of truth and fairness are also undermined by who is interviewed and by whom, what questions are asked and how they are phrased, and the propensity for journalists to engage in gotcha journalism. 

If professional integrity is still the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility, it is no wonder that journalism has lost its credibility with the American public.  Stated another way, the American public—by and large—no longer trusts journalists.  There is a wide-spread feeling among Americans that journalists will do anything to sell newspapers or boost television ratings with little or no concern for the truth. Ask them what they think about the professional integrity of journalists and you will quickly learn that many Americans don’t think the terms integrity and journalism belong in the same sentence.  Words such as biased, unfair, over-hyped, and one-sided are frequently used to describe the feelings of Americans toward journalists.

The SPJ makes it clear that in journalism “deliberate distortion is never permissible.”  Unfortunately, deliberate distortion is not only common in journalistic circles it has become an accepted strategy.  There was a period of time when Americans thought money was the only factor driving the distortions that have become so common a part of the daily news, but since the election of President Bill Clinton it seems that ideology trumps even money in the mainstream media.  This probably explains why certain news and commentary programs that can manage only anemic ratings—Hardball with Chris Matthews for example—are allowed to stay on the air.  If money were the most important factor in contemporary journalism, a lot of cellar-dwelling news and commentary programs would have been axed long ago.

Finally, the SPJ encourages journalists to “examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.”  Are you kidding?  Imposing their leftwing, secular humanist values on the rest of the nation is the ultimate goal of the mainstream media.  At times it seems to be journalism’s only goal.  In fact, all a person has to do to incur the wrath of the mainstream media these days is take a stand at odds with liberal orthodoxy on any issue.  Contemporary journalists have a new name for people who take such stands.  They are hate mongers and anything they say is labeled hate speech.    Today’s so-called journalists will not only splice and edit to distort anything said by a conservative or Christian,  they will go on the offensive and attack with ridicule and venom before their victim has time to even answer the question or complete his comment.

Most mainstream media outlets have lost substantial ground in the television ratings to cable programs while, at the same time, newspapers are struggling to stay relevant. There are a lot of factors that undermine the ratings of television journalists and the subscription rates of newspapers (e.g. too many news programs coupled with too little news to fill the 24 hour-a-day format, the Internet, America’s alarming illiteracy rate, a lack of interest in reading on the part of those who can read, busy lives, the entertainment mentality, etc.).  However, I am willing to bet that if a television news program or a newspaper decided that it was going to adhere carefully and closely to the precepts of the SPJ, it would thrive, even in these difficult times for journalism.  Journalistic ethics as spelled out in the SPJ’s Code of Ethics would go a long way toward reversing the fortunes of the fourth estate.