Volume 17 Number2
Ethics and the Journalist
01 April 2004

What does it take to make a responsible journalist, asks Henry F Heald.

Bob Lowery, an award-winning journalist based in Thompson, Manitoba, once remarked to me: ‘If God could trust us with success, we’d have changed the world long ago.’ As a fellow journalist, that set me thinking. Dealing with failure is fairly straightforward. You hurt for a while; and then you pull yourself together, apologize for your mistake, put things right with the people you hurt, and get on with your life.

Dealing with success is much more difficult. The adulation of the crowd, a word or two of praise from your publisher, a couple of awards for outstanding work and you begin to think you can’t do anything wrong. You drift along on a cloud of euphoria, forgetting about the needs of the people around you. It may last for weeks. It may last for years. But eventually something will bring you back down to the real world.

When I worked for newspapers or for government departments, I always had an editor. Some were better than others, but they all served to help me keep my feet on the ground, and to puncture the balloon when I got a swelled head. When you freelance, you have to be your own editor, and it can be dangerous. On one occasion I wrote something that deeply hurt a dear friend. When I sat down to ponder how I could have done something so stupid, the thought came clearly: ‘It wasn’t stupidity, it was arrogance.’ I was proud of my writing ability and in my arrogance thought I could write whatever I liked. I realized then that rather than being proud I should feel humble that God, in his love, had given me such a talent.

This essay is not a sermon; it is a commentary on journalism. Journalists are human beings. We are the communicators. People learn about society through what we write. If we want to create a humane society we need to be humane beings. We have to expose evil, but our real job is to champion the good. If you get your kicks out of beating up on people, you should be a prizefighter, not a journalist.

A couple of years ago, former Beirut AP Bureau Chief and hostage Terry Anderson attended a meeting of the International Communications Forum in Denver. The delegates included about 60 media professionals from a wide range of organizations and many levels of authority.

Anderson, who was a journalism professor at the time, asked the delegates how many of them had been the subject of media interviews? Quite a number of hands went up. Then he asked how many were dissatisfied with the media coverage they received? Almost all the same hands went up again. If we journalists can’t get the story straight when we are interviewing our own colleagues, how often do we get it wrong when we interview politicians, community and business leaders, or victims of crimes? No wonder the public doesn’t trust the media!

Pressure of deadlines is no excuse for sloppy work. A story isn’t a story if it isn’t right. Better to miss a deadline than to print a falsehood. Deadline pressure is often used as an excuse when the real culprit is laziness, ignorance or arrogance.

We often have to write about people who abuse public confidence. Can we do it with a clear conscience? I’m amazed at how often reporters criticize the amount of travelling done by politicians or senior bureaucrats. For a factory worker or a clerk in a small business who flies to California or Nassau for a holiday every couple of years, a lot of travel sounds exotic. But as journalists we know better.

You know how it is. You fly across the country, or across the ocean, to a conference in some big city. You arrive jetlagged. You eat too much. Maybe you drink too much as well. You are up half the night working on your story in a dry hotel room with lousy lighting. You miss your son’s soccer game, and you arrive home tired, headachy and smelling of cigar smoke. If you are lucky your luggage arrives with you. Is that glamorous? Yet when a politician does it, all too often you try to make your readers believe he is enjoying himself at public expense. It is dishonest.

The media got quite exercised when a reporter at The New York Times, Jayson Blair, turned out to be a con artist. The Times turned itself inside out trying to discover how it happened. It happened because there are always people who don’t want to live by the rules, and because most of us in democratic societies refuse to live in security cocoons. If we were not prepared to take risks to enjoy our freedom we would live in gated communities inside a police state. We would refuse to drive our cars, visit other countries or even speak to strangers.

The Jayson Blairs of this world are not dangerous; they are just a nuisance. What is dangerous is the decline of moral standards and ethical behaviour among large segments of society—journalism not excepted. Blair’s game would have been spotted early on if staff at The Times were part of a democratic operation. But media corporations are autocratic states. Democracy is something about which publishers and editorial writers pontificate. It is not something practised in the newsroom. Reporters are encouraged to show initiative in the exercise of their craft. They are not expected to show initiative on the structure of the company.

It has been said that we live in the age of communication. That is only half right. There is certainly more information available on the planet today than ever before. But that doesn’t mean we are communicating better. There is also more misinformation. And with the lack of controls on the Internet, there is more unbalanced information and more propaganda posing as information.

What do people do with all the information? Just telling them that there are more crooks, more violence and more risks than ever before is hardly enough. People just turn off. It is a question of what is your agenda? People have different agendas. For many it is just to make money and enhance their reputation. But what is money or reputation if your country is taken over by a dictator? Or if your son or daughter is killed by a terrorist?

Communication is power. What do we journalists do with our power? There are as many good stories to tell as bad ones. There are as many people working to build a good society, as there are committed to destroying society. Those are the stories we should be telling. Yes, we need to blow the whistle on corruption wherever we find it, but we must go farther than that. We journalists should aim to increase moral standards.

I want to be the kind of person who will make his country clean, honest and compassionate. I want to write what will help people build a caring, sustainable global society in which everyone has enough because everyone cares enough and shares enough. And if that means living by absolute moral standards, I’m ready to accept the challenge.

Henry F Heald, a freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada, specializes in agriculture and international development.

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