Wednesday, May 18, 2005

My take on media ethics

As an editor and recovering journalist, I've been following this week's Newsweek scandal a bit. Whether Newsweek was right or wrong to use an anonymous source, whether they were right or wrong to retract the story (though it appears that what they reported was essentially true and has been reported elsewhere; the government source just backed off on it), the result has been more hand-wringing and wailing on both sides of the media divide.

Roy Peter Clark, at Poynter, has a good take on the issue of media ethics and makes a good case for what he calls Green Light ethics. He says:
Green Light ethics would:
  • Emphasize power and duty, over caution and restraint.
  • Consider "how to" rather than "ought not."
  • Focus on opportunities rather than limits.
  • Pay more attention to virtues and heroes than to vices and villains.
  • Use ingenuity and craft to get things in rather than keep things out.
  • View American journalism as too timid rather than too aggressive.

But surely a story like the Newsweek debacle lends itself to Red Light remediation.

Monday morning I heard Jonathan Alter of Newsweek make a case for the kind of reporting that resulted in a poorly sourced story that may have led to the loss of life. The world of journalism, he argued in a radio interview, has just a few news organizations willing to delve into the world of government secrets. Do we want to live in a world where all of our information is spoon-fed to us by those in power? Or do we need journalists to take serious risks to find out what we need to know? He was making, I would argue, a Green Light case, even for a story the possible consequences of which required higher standards of verification.

Red Light says: Let's back off. Green Light says: Let's pin it down.

To me, this emphasizes even more the importance of a variety of voices in the news. Not all CNN or all FOX or all NPR, but multiple news organizations, owned by different companies, doing the hard work of telling the truth and keeping our government honest. I know, my idealism is showing. But that's what makes the best journalists and I'm hoping there are still some of those out there.

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