Most Ohio newsrooms that participated in a 2008 survey do not have a specific, established process for handling ethical issues. However, the news managers in many of these newsrooms say having newsroom staff members discuss ethical issues is a key to their ethical decision-making.
A questionnaire was sent to specific individuals thought to be in the best position to comment on the ethical decision-making in that shop. In all cases, that named individual was a news manager, with a title such as editor, managing editor, or news director. If someone else was better suited to complete the questionnaire, the cover letter requested that substitution.
One hundred and six newsrooms (at least one in each of Ohio's 88 counties) were sent a mail questionnaire in March 2008; 58 newsrooms responded for an overall response rate of 55 percent. Neither the original sample nor the self-selected respondents constituted a random sample from which generalizations could be made. The intent of the study was to conduct a pilot study that might yield helpful information to use in future research on newsroom decision-making. The 58 respondents were at 40 daily newspapers, 9 weekly newspapers, 8 TV stations and 1 non-identifiable news outlet whose data were, however, tabulated for this pilot study. (At the time of the survey, there were roughly 84 dailies and 250 weeklies in Ohio.) All 20 network-affiliated television stations in the five largest Ohio TV markets were contacted. No radio stations were surveyed. All respondents were asked to participate in a follow-up e-mail interview; nine complied and identified themselves. Although 58 newsrooms participated in the survey, not all 58 news managers responded to every item on the questionnaire. Forty-four of 57 respondents said they were the decision-maker in their newsroom. The decision-maker in one newsroom could not be determined from the information provided.
The questions focused on ethical decision-making in the newsroom, centering on the role of discussion (collaboration) in ethical decision-making.
Thirty-seven of 52 respondents said their newsrooms do not have an established decision-making procedure, one that would guide the staff through specific steps or questions in addressing an ethical issue. Fifteen news managers said an established process to decide ethical issues existed in their newsrooms. They described the decision-making routine in various ways, such as checking with the editor, following the newsroom's ethics policy, taking the issue through the chain of command and holding meetings to discuss the issue. Television newsrooms (4 of 8) were more likely than print newsrooms (11 of 43) to have an established decision-making process. No data were sought to explain this-or other-differences.
In most of the newsrooms that did not have a formal, detailed ethical decision-making process, the staff at least discussed ethical issues. And that discussion itself, whatever its shape, seems to be a key component of the decision-making.
Forty-two of 58 news managers said the staff's opinion is either always solicited or solicited most of the time before a decision is made about an ethical issue. Sixteen said collaboration occurs occasionally or rarely.
In the follow-up e-mail interview with nine respondents, six managers (including the three quoted below) elaborated on the importance of collaboration to sound ethical decision-making.
"Many times-if not most of the time-there are no clear-cut or black-or-white answers in an ethical dilemma," said Ted Daniels, managing editor of the Ashland Times-Gazette. "So the more perspectives offered, helps you make a better decision. Discussing an issue brings not only more perspective, often time it brings up similar past cases from others' experiences which can provide helpful guidance. Also, in a small newsroom where the staff includes a fair number of inexperienced journalists, these discussions can serve as a valuable teaching tool."
The editor of the Morning Journal in Lisbon, Dorma Tolson, said, "The editor isn't an omnipresent, all-knowing being. We're usually just the person with the most experience. Allowing trusted staff members to offer an opinion can lend balance to the decision."
Tim Picard, editor of the Mt. Gilead Sentinel, said discussing an issue with the staff has sometimes changed his mind. "Bouncing ideas off others is like looking through the couch cushions for change (literally and figuratively)," he said. "Frankly, I like to change my mind because that suggests to me that I've actually looked at both sides of an issue."
Fifty-two of 56 respondents said the decision-maker would accept a consensus view most of the time.
Although the staff discussed ethical issues in most newsrooms, 48 of 57 news managers overall agreed with the statement that a gut-level sense of right and wrong determined their ethical decision-making. Forty-two of 48 print news managers shared this view compared to five of eight TV news managers.
"Sometimes right is right and wrong is wrong," said a weekly newspaper editor who did not want to be identified. "I realize there is very little in this world that does not fall into a gray area; however, a good reporter is able to follow his or her "gut" and develop a story into something that can help affect change for the better. The same can ring true in ethical decisions-sometimes you just know what is the right decision to make. This 'gut-feeling' can and should also be tempered by collaborative discussion on the issue."
Ted Daniels, managing editor of the Ashland Times-Gazette, also agreed with the statement. "Your gut-level sense of right and wrong is in large part shaped by past experience," he said. "I have found my gut has become at least a little 'more accurate' in such cases with age and experience."
However, Tom Graser, editor of the daily Marion Star, was one of 9 who disagreed with the notion that a gut-level sense of right and wrong determined his ethical decision-making. "You can't trust a gut-level response when it comes to ethics," Graser said. "Yes, there are certain things that are ethically black and white, but many, many others have shades of gray that don't give you the luxury of an easy decision."
Lisa Warren, editor of the Middletown Journal, also disagreed with the statement. "While the buck stops with me, it is important that editors and even reporters under me feel that they are heard, and also have experience with these decisions for their future career growth," she said. "I also seek out expertise, such as our company attorney, so that I am sure I am considering all perspectives and ramifications before making a decision. While I certainly listen to my gut feelings, I want to be thoughtful & deliberative and not always react from my first instinct."
Fifty-three of 57 respondents said their newsroom does not use an established ethical theory, such as utilitarianism, in deciding ethical issues.
Concerning factors that influence ethical decisions in their newsroom, respondents were asked to rank, according to their importance, the values listed in the table provided (the values in the table are listed in descending order or importance but were presented in a different order on the questionnaire). If respondents thought two or more values were of equal importance, they could indicate that.
Among these values, the news managers overwhelmingly rated making sure information is true and correct in context as the most important one. It received 47 confirmations as the most important value and seven confirmations as the second most important value. The public's need to know was a distant second and adhering to your newsroom's code of ethics was third. No news manager cited either what the competition might do or satisfying the public's curiosity as the most important value; however, five managers said satisfying the public's curiosity was their second most important value.
Overall, 34 of 55 news managers said deception in reporting or gathering the news is never justified (deception was defined on the questionnaire to include using a hidden camera, posing or lying). However, 20 news managers said sometimes deception might be justified depending on the circumstances. One said deception was always justified.
Tom Graser, editor of the Marion Star, is among those respondents who said deception is never justified. "Our obligation is to tell the truth in a truthful way," he said. "A newspaper's greatest resource is our credibility. We could lose that pretty fast if we tricked people into talking to us or use deceitful tactics to gather the news."
However, Ted Daniels, managing editor of the Ashland Times-Gazette, said sometimes some forms of deception in service of the public interest may be justified. "The cases are few, but if there is absolutely no other way to land an important story, having a reporter not identify himself or herself as a journalist might be acceptable," he said. "They should never be involved in an outright lie. The overall good of exposing a wrong must far outweigh the negative effect such efforts likely would have on a news organization's credibility in terms of truthfulness and transparency."
The respondents, overall, were split on the issue of whether photos should drive editorial decisions. Thirty-one of 54 news managers disagreed with the statement that it was okay if photos drove editorial decisions, while 23 agreed with this view.
Tom Graser, editor of the Marion Star, said art is important but not so important that it drives news decisions. "I wouldn't hold a solid news story because I wanted to run art from a weaker story, but I am willing to make my front page look compelling with interesting art," he said.
Dorma Tolson, editor of the Morning Journal in Lisbon, said, "A great photo can go front, with the story (if it's not frontworthy) being teased inside, but weak stories should not go front if they wouldn't go there without art."
Thirty-nine of 50 news managers said the ethics guidelines for their Web site are not more relaxed than the guidelines for their newspaper or TV broadcast. The other 11 managers-all from daily newspapers-said their Web site ethics guidelines are more relaxed.
Ted Daniels, managing editor of the Ashland Times-Gazette, said he's not sure whether newsrooms should have different ethics guidelines for their Web sites. "But the current reality is they are (different)," he said. "The standards are not different for our stories that we post on the Web, but the differences are among the reader contributions. The anonymity of the Web has created major ethical headaches for newspaper editors. The Web's interactivity and ability to facilitate community conversations offers us vast positive potential. However, Web culture is based on anonymity. While we do not allow unsigned letters to the editors on our editorial page and avoid at all costs use of anonymous sources on our news pages, on our Websites those standards don't apply. We have the usual 'terms of service' about no profanity, poor taste, no personal attacks, etc. but those lines, especially on personal attacks and poor tastes are difficult to define. Our experience has shown that you moderate as lightly as possible the Web conversations among readers. There's lots of stuff on our Website we wouldn't allow in our printed newspaper, but that information and those conversations on the Web often do serve a valuable purpose for the community. And these conversations most often moderate themselves in terms of accuracy and fairness."
This study found that, based on circulation size, newspapers differed in how often they solicited staff opinion on ethical issues. Six of nine weeklies with a circulation less than 15,000 solicited staff opinion most of the time. None said always. But five of six dailies with a circulation more than 50,000 solicited staff opinion most of the time, and the sixth daily said always.
Thirty-one of 47 print news managers said deception (such as using a hidden camera) was never justified, whereas five of seven television news managers said deception was always or sometimes justified. Television is arguably more dependent on visuals, and that may explain why TV journalists are more accepting of deceptive practices. (Seow wonders whether this medium difference in the tolerance of deception will continue to exist as newspapers increase their efforts to improve their presence on the Internet by becoming more visual in their presentation of stories. Will convergence blur that distinction?)
A central finding of this study is that staff discussion of ethical issues appears to be a key component of deciding ethical issues in Ohio newsrooms, with 52 of 56 news managers indicating that a consensus staff opinion on ethical issues was accepted most of the time by the decision-maker. This suggests that the decision-maker is not just consulting with staff for affirmation of a decision already made.
Future research addressing the discussion involved in deciding ethical issues in the newsroom may focus on the nature and quality of the discussion, not just on whether and how often discussion occurs and whether management takes them seriously. For example, is the essence of the discussion simply to get everyone's take on an ethical matter or does a set of routine questions such "what do we know" and "what else do we need to know" help guide the discussion to a decision?
1. T.L. Seow, "Predicting Tolerance of Journalistic Deception," JOURNAL OF MASS MEDIA ETHICS (2005), 20:1: 22-42.