June 26, 2003
Ethical Journalism Practices
By Thomas C. Leonard
BERKELEY -- Letís
talk about changes in the ethics of journalism. The century
began with the Yellow Press, which is portrayed in most history
books as being ethically challenged. In the í20s you have
the development of the first canons of ethics, such as that
of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Because weíve come through a period
of great exposure of shortcomings in financial journalism
ó and we can think of a number of stories where journalists
seemed to be asleep at the switch, the Enron case and so forth
ó we might conclude that things are worse today than when
20th century journalism got its start.
But I think almost any historian would
tell you that what we normally think of as corrupt or compromised
situations for journalists were common early in the 20th century.
Partly because the notion of professional ethics, indeed the
notion of the profession, was much less well worked out then
than it is today.
If you take sections of a newspaper,
sections of coverage which are susceptible to marketplace
influence, corruption, bribes or influence--the business page,
the sports page, the coverage of celebrities--most newspapers
in early 20th century America were compromised in ways that
they are not today.
Any number of sports reporters as
late as the í20s, bet on games, took tips, received subsidies.
Essentially their judgments were for sale. I donít think thatís
true anymore in sports reporting.
Similarly in business reporting. People
touted stocks and promoted their own businesses, even promoted
the publisherís outside businesses, to an extent that would
be unacceptable today.
Then there are other aspects of coverage,
which we might not think of as ethical, which were not hard
to find in publications of the early 20th century. A kind
of systematic bias against African Americans. Anti-Semitism.
A sort of loose slur of habits of Catholics and other religious
Now I canít tell you that journalists
today are less prejudiced than they once were, but I can say
what they say in print and the way they handle stories betrays
a much more evenhandedness about, for example, racial and
A comparison thatís really interesting
to make here, ethically, is the fact that America is beginning
to look a lot like the society of, say, 1910, in the sense
that we are again a nation of immigrants. The number of people
in major East Coast or West Coast cities who were born abroad
is now about the same as it was in 1910. Weíre getting percentages
of 30% or 40% ó again, not in whole metropolitan areas, but
certainly in core cities.
Itís very interesting to see newspapers
try to handle newcomers. The press today is more tolerant,
more open to cultural differences, than at least some of the
press was in the early 20th century.
Though, again, in a way there are
kind of hidden virtues of the publishers of that time. William
Randolph Hearst, because he wanted to attract these immigrant
readers, sort of bent over backwards to portray their national
cultures ó at least some of their national cultures ó in a
Right. You play up to the Irish, or
you play up to the Jews, because theyíre very important in
your demographics. Theyíre the kinds of people you want to
reach. Most of us would say that kind of market pressure is
all to the good, because it tends to reinforce the instincts
for tolerance, a culture that can absorb and accept people
of different backgrounds.
One thing thatís interesting, if you
look at journalists as a social group is their aspiration
to have the status and the standards of professions, even
though they lack some of the important features of a profession
ó educational requirements, state licensing (and I would say
the vast majority of journalist wouldnít dream of having that
as a bar to becoming a journalist. Itís open that way).
So thereís this effort to make you
better and receive the respect that other professions get.
That takes the form often of trying to enforce standards informally,
to call on people to do their best. I daresay Grade the News
is an example of that.
Then thereís another habit of mind
journalists fall into, and that is of despair and cynicism,
the feeling that itís not worth it to try to be truth-tellers
or fair information-gatherers in this society. This is expressed
early in the 20th century in the behavior of a lot of journalists.
The great play of the 1920s, ďThe
Front Page,Ē where journalists tear up everything including
journalism, and show the politicians and the moralists just
how itís all anarchy ó we find that mood today in journalists
who have been close to government, close to business and are
now willing to say itís absurd, and so forth. Itís a habit
of mind thatís sort of an occupational hazard for journalists.
[Editorís Note: Historian Thomas C. Leonard,
is the Librarian of the University of California and professor
at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of
California at Berkeley. This story first appeared in The Stanford
Review on July 25, 2003.]
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