Nick Youngson CC BY SA 3.0Nick Youngson CC BY SA 3.0The Trump administration has brought about increased discussions about both political and mass media ethics. We are now at the apex of a shift in ethics brought about by the explosion of social media, partisan politics (epitomized by both the Obama and Trump administrations) and societal upheavals that challenge political correctness and apathy.

In this current environment, the public has lost confidence in the news media and all public institutions, including the presidency and Congress. Those who attend to government and political issues choose sides and attend to media that only support their own views or beliefs. Perhaps then, the time has come to reconsider the bedrock of mass media ethics. Reconsidering Edmund B. Lambeth’s principles that he put forth in two editions of his book, Committed Journalism: An Ethic for the Profession, offers a way to critic the current ethics climate and revive his best advice to media content producers.

Lambeth had strong professional and academic credentials that promoted his interest in media ethics. He founded the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington Reporting Program in 1968, in which he supervised students’ reporting projects for newspapers, radio and magazines for 10 years. Beginning in 1978 he served as a professor of journalism at Indiana University and subsequently the director of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism. In 1987, Lambeth returned to the Missouri School of Journalism as associate dean for graduate studies and research. Now in his mid-80s, Lambeth is Professor Emeritus at MU.

In 1986 Lambeth published Committed Journalism: An Ethic for the Profession, his reflection on his interest in public affairs reporting, ethics, media criticism and the history of journalism. He further developed his thesis in his second edition in 1992. Lambeth’s book came at about the mid-point of a revival of a national discussion of media ethics and social responsibility, drawing on ethicists who came before and influenced the debates to come afterward.

Lambeth’s contribution to ethics lie in his bridging the three major categories of ethical thought: The classical ethics of virtues view, the deontology (duty) perspective and the teleological (consequences) approach. Lambeth, although influenced by the Hutchins Commission and its insistence on a “socially responsible press,” did not think the commission’s guideline was sufficient.

As Lambeth’s philosophy evolved between the first and second editions of his book, as he embraced philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of journalism as “practice.” He said MacIntyre’s work was important to the ethics of journalism because:

  1. He blended sociology and moral philosophy in a way that provided a unique perspective on the setting of standards of excellence in journalism.
  2. His ideas had concrete implications for improving journalistic performance.
  3. His unique emphasis on the importance of the past allowed journalists to see the experience of their predecessors in a richer and more useful context (Lambeth, 1992, p. 73).

Lambeth agreed with MacIntyre that “the goods within a practice” cannot be advanced without practicing the virtues of “courage, justice and honesty (Lambeth, 1992, p. 74). In his second edition, with his embrace of MacIntyre’s notion of “practice,” Lambeth moved even further beyond the social responsibility concept, while returning to the classical virtues, writing:

To a journalist, it is “good” to tell the whole story, not just part of it. Other “goods” which define journalism include reporting that serves the public interest; gathering, writing, and editing the news with fairness; choosing clear, vivid, and precise prose; keeping the reader squarely in mind; and conducting journalism in a way that will preserve its First Amendment rights to free expression. Examples abound to show that these are, in fact, “journalistic goods” respected within the craft/profession….

My own view is that MacIntyre’s concept of a social practice and his understanding of moral selfhood can be made consistent with the mixed rule deontology approach…. That is, the approach that consults both a framework of principles and consequences in making moral decisions and setting a life’s course (Lambeth, 1992, pp. 73-74).

Additionally, Lambeth embraced the 1947 Report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press (also known as the Hutchins Commission). In particular, he considered the five standards of performance “required by a free and responsible press”:

  1. Provide a “truthful, comprehensive account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.”
  2. Serve as a “forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.”
  3. Offer a “representative picture of the constituent group of society.”
  4. Present and clarify the “goals and values of society.”
  5. Provide “full access to the day’s intelligence” (Lambeth, 1992, p. 6.)

Lambeth notes that these requirements are amplified in Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilber Schramm, Four Theories of the Press, 1956, pp. 87-92. He promoted his belief that journalists were professionals with specific ethical responsibilities that, if practiced faithfully, would result in a reliable and credible source of discourse that would, in turn, strengthen democracy.

In spite of his embrace of the Hutchins standards, he acknowledged that they did little to help journalists with the daily ethical journalists they had to make. His editions, “for the profession,” thus attempted to create a framework for the daily, ethical practice of journalism.

To that end, Lambeth devised a “set of principles” that he believed would lead toward an eclectic system of journalism ethics and go beyond the concept of “social responsibility.” A variety of influences, discussed below, led to his formulation of:

  1. The principle of truth telling.
  2. The principle of justice.
  3. The principle of freedom.
  4. The principle of humaneness.
  5. The principle of stewardship

Exploring these influences that led to Lambeth’s conclusions is worthwhile today. The philosophical underpinning of media ethics can be classified into three broad approaches:

  1. The virtue theory (Aristotle, Plato) Does experience on the job and discussion with fellow journalists lead to instinctively selecting the “right or good” way to act?
  2. The deontological or duty theory (Kant) Should journalists instead adhere to codes or guidelines that provide a more uniform way for journalists to act?
  3. The teleological or consequence theory (Mill) Should journalists consider the effects or consequences of their reporting on the public? (Clifford G. Christians, Fackler, Richardson, Kreshel, & Woods, Jr., 2017, pp. 13-29)

Lambeth advocated this approach to journalistic ethics, noting the need to reconcile Immanuel Kant’s duty-based categorical imperative with John Stewart Mill’s utilitarian concern with consequences. Lambeth also references John Rawls’ justice ideas several times in his book. Lambeth found the balance in these theories in the social responsibility theory that encouraged codes of ethics but recognized the need to consider whether a journalist’s actions were responsible and sought to do the least harm possible. He stated: “an ethical system for journalists should be one which journalists themselves find fair and useful in evaluating not only the morality of their individual behavior but also the worth of their collective labors” (Lambeth, 1992, p. 24).

The Development of Lambeth’s Principles

Lambeth acknowledges in his first edition several influences on his own thinking. The most important of these influences are discussed below.

Early Social Responsibility Ethicists

Two of four important books that furthered the social responsibility theory and that influenced Lambeth were published in 1963. The first, a seminal book, Four Theories of the Press (Fred S. Siebert, 1952), took up the argument for a socially responsible press, stating: “pure libertarianism is antiquated, out dated and obsolete.” The authors advocated for the replacement of libertarian theory with the social responsibility theory.

The second, J. Edward Gerald’s book, The Social Responsibility of the Press (Gerald, 1963), examined the mass media’s interaction with political and economic institutions. He considered mass communication media to be “social institutions, the product of a social demand, even though they appear to be self-propagating.” Gerald viewed the mass media as having professional standards, the first of which was to preserve the First Amendment (Gerald, 1963, p. 7).

William L. Rivers, Wilbur Schramm and Clifford G. Christians published the third edition of Responsibility in Mass Communication in 1980. By this time, the broadcast media were considered in addition to “the press.” The authors pointed to criticism of the media that included entertainment television as well as the news division, while also describing the dependency the public has on the media for necessary information (Rivers, Schramm, & Christians, 1980, pp. 16-17).

John L. Hulteng published two editions of The Messenger’s Motives: Ethical Problems of the News Media, the first in 1976 and the second in 1985, placing the book squarely in the middle of the social responsibility theory acceptance. First, he pointed out that “channels of communication now are limited” due to the consolidation of media ownership (such as Gannett Newspaper Group). Further, he said the news media’s responsibility is “to provide a truthful, balanced and comprehensive account of the news” (Hulteng, 1985, p. 11).

The Development of Professional Codes of Ethics

In the 1970s and 1980s mostly print organizations were growing concerned about the “professionalism” of journalism. The result of this concern was the creation of codes of ethics that would be professional guidelines for journalists. The goal of any code of ethics is to protect the profession and provide a means of public trust in the media. Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society of Professional Journalists) established its first code of ethics, borrowed from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in 1926. It did not develop its own code until 1973. The code was then revised in 1984, and 1987, a year after Lambeth’s first edition was published.

Devising codes that the organization membership would accept contributed to the debate about how journalists should do their jobs, and even whether “journalism” should be considered a profession or a trade, even asking whether schools of journalism were necessary. Subsequent revisions occurred in 1996 and 2014, with an additional revision currently underway (SPJ, History,

The need for numerous revisions speaks to the changing journalism profession, including but not limited to, developments in social media (especially Twitter and Facebook), fewer generalists and more specialists, improvements in journalism education and changing societal norms, such as the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Additionally, partisan politics has also seen a rise in partisan media, complete with “alternative facts.”

Lambeth also considered criticism of the social responsibility theory, especially often-cited journalism scholar John C. Merrill. In two of his books, The Imperative of Freedom (1974), and Existential Journalism (1977) Merrill took exception to the social responsibility theory and to journalists relying on codes of ethics. In the first book, he wrote:

Implicit in this trend toward “social responsibility” is the argument that some group (obviously a judicial or governmental one, ultimately) can and must define or decide what is socially responsible. Also, the implication is clear that publishers and journalists acting freely cannot determine what is socially responsible nearly as well as can some “outside” or “impartial” group (Merrill, The Imperative of Freedom, 1974).

In his second book, Merril ridiculed SPJ’s 1973 code of ethics. He pointed to “generalizations and semantically foggy clichés,” such as the “public enlightenment as the forerunner of justice,” “obligations that require journalists to perform with intelligence, objectivity, accuracy and fairness,” and serving “the general welfare” (Merrill, Existential Journalism, 1977, p. 131).

Lambeth also let his views of ethics push him toward the Civic/Public Journalism movement that was at its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s. Although he continued to organize ethics conferences, Lambeth’s subsequent books focused on Civic/Public Journalism. He did no further revisions of Committed Journalism. This is the most compelling reason to find new relevance in Lambeth’s bridging of the three main areas of ethical thought.

Applications of Lambeth’s Principles

When Lambeth wrote his first edition, he was aware of the low esteem in which the news media were held and the debate over the “professional” status of journalism. He used a 1984 NORC poll that ranked the news media against other institutions regarding trust. Medicine ranked at the top of the list at 50.4 percent. The press (at 16.7 percent) ranked just above television (13.0 percent), Congress (12.4 percent) and organized labor (8.5 percent), but also below the scientific community, the U.S. Supreme Court, banks and financial institutions, organized religion, major companies, education and the executive branch (Lambeth, Committed Journalism An Ethic for the Profession, 1986, p. vii). These concerns were major reasons that Lambeth embraced social responsibility theory and chose to extend it first with his principles and later with his embrace of Public/Civic Journalism.

Few can argue that the news media enjoy any greater esteem today than when Lambeth raised concern about declining media ethics and prestige. In fact, according to a 2016 Gallup Poll, trust in mass media’s ability "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with only 32 percent of those polled saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down 8 percentage points from 2015 (Gallup, Sept. 14, 2016).

In 2017 the Pew Research Center also found that only about 22 percent of Americans believe the national media do very well at keeping them informed. These results also show a partisan split, with 33 percent of Democrats, 18 percent of Republicans and only 15 percent of Independents say the national media do very well (Pew Research Center, Journalism and Media, 2017).

Ironically, in the age of Trump, many consumers are feeling overly saturated with news. A recent Pew Research study indicated almost seven-in-ten Americans (68%) felt worn out by the amount of news greeting them each day, compared with only three-in-ten who said they like the amount of news they get. This jibes with similar exhaustion reported from the 2016 presidential election coverage. Fatigue was higher among Republicans and Republican-leaners (77%) than among Democrats and Democratic-leaners (61%) (Barthel, 2018).

Lambeth could not have anticipated the Trump administration’s use of Twitter and partisan news media to attack his “enemies” – especially reporters and the news media –

by labeling any unflattering story “fake news.” However, his principles remain relevant and should serve as a guide to today’s journalists as they navigate the difficulties of journalism today.

Principle 1: Truth Telling

Lambeth’s first principle is truth telling. Although a code of may include the word “truth” the question is which truth or who’s truth? In codes, truth telling is defined as “factual accuracy.” However, Lambeth goes further, writing:

Most fundamentally, the need is for a habit of accuracy, of checking and rechecking to establish the accuracy of questionable information. The habit includes acquisition of the skill to anticipate likelihood of error (Lambeth, Committed Journalism An Ethic for the Profession, 1986, p. 29).

Consider what this means today – in the era of social media and political turmoil. The news media now have “fact checkers” who try to keep up with political rhetoric, especially in the age of Trump. Fact checking occurs in real time, such as when presidential candidates are debating or the president speaks publicly. What about ordinary, daily news? When President Trump tweeted that former President Barack Obama and the FBI had a “spy” in the Trump campaign, what should reporters do? How do reporters fact-check comments that have no supporting evidence to back them up?

In fact, an NBC story that claimed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president “a fucking moron” several weeks before the story broke earned a backlash among those who believe the president when he said that NBC or the “failing” New York Times made up the entire story.

Although these news organizations have, in fact, increased readers and viewers, they still lack transparency about how they are obtaining their information and whether their sources have motives that are self-serving rather than altruistic. A recent Reuters story published in The New York Times illustrates this difficulty:

(Reuters) - The Trump administration has indefinitely delayed a proposed overhaul of U.S. biofuels policy aimed at reducing costs for the oil industry, under pressure from corn state lawmakers who worry the move would undermine demand for ethanol, according to two sources familiar with the matter…. "The announcement won't be happening," one of the sources said. The second source said the deal had apparently collapsed. Both sources asked not to be identified discussing the matter (Reuters).

On the other hand, journalists are indigent when Congress or the administration, take action to plug leaks, as in the case of James A. Wolfe, a former longtime staffer for the Senate Intelligence Committee who was indicted on three felony counts of making false statements to the FBI during an investigation into leaks of classified information. He was accused of lying to FBI investigators about his contacts with four journalists and about whether he had provided confidential committee information to them. Journalist Ali Watkins was informed by the DOJ earlier this year that the department had obtained records for two of her email accounts and her phone number, going back several years up until November 2017 because she had been in a relationship with Wolfe. The New York Times, for whom Watkins was working when this news broke issued a statement concerning the potential chilling effect of this action:

“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and we believe that communications between journalists and their sources demand protection," Eileen Murphy, spokesperson for The Times, said in a statement. "This decision by the Justice Department will endanger reporters' ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much-needed light on government actions. That should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry" (Connely, 2018)

The deontology perspective would say that The Times should do its duty to the American public no matter the consequences, so unnamed sources and leaks only can be used if necessary. The teleological perspective would argue that using unnamed sources and leaks constantly hurt the news media’s credibility.

In this era of easily fabricated news (Russian-sponsored ads and rumors, spies in Trump Tower, etc.); and a president in office who, according to CNN lied 3,000 time in 466 days (Cillizza, 2018), adherence to Lambeth’s truth-telling principle would help to restore trust. Media credibility will improve if:

1) No deliberate or careless distribution of fake news will be tolerated. This means that journalists must step up fact-checking and not repost or retweet information from sources they have not independently verified or that are not sources they recognize and trust.

2) No unnamed sources are used except in extreme circumstances. Journalists have a duty to protect sources, and most know that sometimes sources do need to be kept confidential. However, the reader or viewer have no way to judge the motives of these “unnamed” sources. Journalists also must not fall into the trap of allowing sources to use them to promote the sources’ own agendas.

3) Be transparent. News organizations should tell readers and viewers how the story came about and why unnamed sources were allowed, what procedures are in place and which ethical principles are involved in making decisions about how and when information is reported. Be upfront about retractions. Admit mistakes, and don’t repeat them.

4) Be alert to manipulation – by all sides. Consider the coverage of Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, that portray President Trump as incapable of handling his job because of his declining mental condition. The media (with the exception of Fox News) jumped on the book immediately, with only a few pointing out Wolff’s ethical failings. Although any discussion of the book included disclaimers, such as “We haven’t been able to verify this because of the number of unnamed sources used in the book” and “We know factual errors exist in this book,” most journalists used the book to “verify” their own view of President Trump. The president had a point when he tweeted:

So much Fake News is being reported. They don’t even try to get it right, or correct it when they are wrong. They promote the Fake Book of a mentally deranged author, who knowingly writes false information. The Mainstream Media is crazed that WE won the election! (Trump, 2018)

In fact, Fire and Fury, provided a parallel to an author, Joe McGinniss, Lambeth discusses in his second edition. He pointed out that in McGinniss’ two famous books, The Selling of the President and Fatal Vision, he used a technic labeled “intimate access.” Basically, McGinniss gained access by claiming to be sympathetic to the people in the Nixon administration and the legal team for an accused murder (Lambeth, 1992, pp. 88-89). Wolff also has said in interviews that he said whatever was necessary to gain access to the Trump White House (Hains, 2018). McGinnis was considered a journalist, while Wolff was not. Still, the news media by and large covered Wolff’s book as if accepted journalism techniques were employed, although it fell far short of Lambeth’s definition of truth telling.

Principle 2: Justice

Lambeth’s second principle is justice.” He said The Washington Post’s 1980s standards illustrated rules derived from the principle of justice, (equating it with “fairness”):

  1. No story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. So, fairness includes completeness.
  2. No story is fair if it includes essentially irrelevant information at the expense of significant facts. So, fairness includes relevance.
  3. No story is fair if it consciously or unconsciously misleads or even deceives the reader. So fairness includes honesty–leveling with the reader.
  4. No story is fair if reporters hide their biases or emotions behind such subtly pejorative words as “refused,” “despite,” “admit,” and “massive.” So, fairness requires straightforwardness ahead of flashiness. (Lambeth, Committed Journalism An Ethic for the Profession, 1986, pp. 31-32).

Lambeth pointed to the traditional “watchdog” role of the news media, affirming this role as the socially responsible action to take. Journalists have a duty to investigate wrong doing whether that involves a president’s misdeed or a local contractor’s swindle of tornado victims. This also should mean that the weakest parties in society deserve the most protection (Rawls’ Social Justice).

Several examples of the news media serving in this role arose in 2017. The neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville over Confederate generals’ statues, protests over police killings of young black men, and the “kneeling” protests at NFL games during the National Anthem called for the news media to explain the many sides of these issues. On the other hand, when First Lady Melania Trump disappeared from sight for 24 days following kidney surgery, some in the news media kept mentioning her absence and speculating about why she wasn’t accompanying the president to important summit meetings. In his clumsy way, the president finally tweeted out the reason:

“The Fake News Media has [sic] been so unfair, and vicious, to my wife and our great First Lady, Melania. During her recovery from surgery they reported everything from near death, to facelift, to left the W.H. (and me) for N.Y. or Virginia, to abuse. All Fake, she is doing really well!” (Norwood, 2018).

Although the First Lady’s medical privacy should be hers to direct, Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, argued that her absence was news because she is a public figure “whose staff and security cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year.” Further, when she participates in an official event, news coverage is expected. Finally, the unusualness of the long absence makes it news (Sullivan, 2018).

Perhaps, on the other hand, the media should consider Melania Trump’s predicament because she married Donald Trump before he had presidential aspirations. When Rudy Giuliani attacked the credibility of adult porn star Stormy Daniels by saying he didn’t respect her and that she is not high class like the president’s three wives, Americans were reminded that Melania posed nude for GQ magazine along with reports that the photos were circulating again on social media (Ross, 2018). Is that justice?

“Justice” today involves more than fairness. “Justice” today includes the literal conflict between media reporting and a defendant’s right to a fair and impartial trial or an individual’s right to privacy. To adhere to Lambeth’s concept of justice today:

1) Justice should include covering people who live at the margins of society—avoiding stereotypes, providing context and telling their stories in a compelling way. Today, this includes environmental justice—protecting minority communities from companies and government that increase the environmental pollution to which they are exposed. President Trump, through executive orders and appointments of cabinet members who support his views, has removed regulations that were originally set up to protect the environment and the American food supply. The media should be explaining what removing these regulations will mean to the American public.

2) In today’s climate, journalists should consider carefully Lambeth’s argument that government and the news media should not have an “adversarial” relationship because an adversary is an “opponent” (or in Trump’s terms, an “enemy”). Lambeth argues that the news media should function more like an auditor that supplies “the sensitive interpretation and application” of Lambeth’s five principles (Lambeth, Committed Journalism, 1992, p. 122), rather than as the “fourth estate” or “fourth branch of government.” Whether journalists can reach true neutrality in today’s climate is challenging, but it should still be the goal.

Watchdogs are not always appreciated, especially when their investigations take a long time and cause harm to “innocent” family members and friends. “Spotlight,” an award-winning movie described how Boston Globe reporters from the Spotlight team uncovered child abuse in the Catholic diocese and the ethical issues they encountered along the way to the final expose’. Of course, the justice system also should be looking into wrongdoing, but many times, the persistence of journalists is what nudges justice along as in the cases of reporting on cold cases, sometimes uncovering tips and witnesses who the police need so that justice is done. When the media are partisan, the public has to choose whom to believe rather than viewing all news media as “fair.”

Principle 3: Freedom

Lambeth’s third principle is “Freedom.” He said that liberty is an indispensable element in the idea of justice; and, therefore, denying liberty to individuals or groups is among the greatest of injustices. Under this premise, journalists must guard the First Amendment because that is the source of their freedom.

Today, assaults on the First Amendment are coming in many forms. Challenges to freedom of religion (the immigration ban on predominantly Muslim countries and the connection of terrorism to American Muslim communities) are arising in new ways. Challenges to the freedom to peacefully assemble have arisen in Ferguson, MO, and Charlottesville, VA. Freedom of speech is at the heart of the NFL “take a knee” protest and whether players lose that right when they take the field.

Of course, freedom of the press was Lambeth’s main concern. The news media have not been under such attack since the Nixon era when specific reporters made Nixon’s hit list and eventually helped to ensure his resignation. President Trump regularly insults the media and has made some reporters concerned for their personal safety during some of Trump’s political rallies.

Further, President Trump has hinted at yanking “broadcast licenses” when he felt news is “totally fabricated” (Bierman and Bennett, Oct. 11, 2017, Los Angeles Times). “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” he tweeted. He later told reporters, “It is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it” (Bierman and Bennett). Although he lacks the power to take away licenses at the network level, Trump’s threats nonetheless resonate with Congress and his political base.

President Trump’s inability to personally change libel law has not stopped him from stating publically:

We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws, so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts.

Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness (Grynbaum, 2018).

Lambeth said the second meaning of “freedom” is “the sense of autonomy or independence.” He returned to the ASNE code to explain that journalists should “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict,” including “not accepting any gifts, free or reduced travel, outside employment, certain financial investments, political activity, participation in civic activity or outside speaking engagements” (Lambeth, Committed Journalism An Ethic for the Profession, 1986, pp. 34-35).

Lambeth admitted that principles can conflict, and journalists sometimes must make decisions about covering the news versus giving up some freedom. As the news media, especially newspapers, come under increasing financial pressure, should a sports reporter refuse free entrance into a press box (where food and other perks are abundant) if that will then mean that he or she cannot cover a team for readers? Or, should reporters who cover the government give up their right to vote? Some journalists will argue that if they are covering a political race, voting will mean that they have developed a bias in their reporting. Other journalists consider this disenfranchisement that takes away freedom and does not necessarily mean that they cannot overcome bias.

However, in today’s climate:

  1. The need to protect the First Amendment grows more urgent every day. The public should be reminded that when the American constitution is assaulted, democracy is weakened. All news organizations must be diligent and defend the First Amendment at all costs. They must remember that “truth” is the best defense against libel.
  2. The media must be fiscally responsible, and deployment of resources must be done carefully. Journalists, faced with dwindling resources, may not be able to travel with political candidates, cabinet members and even the president. All legitimate news operations should have equal access to those in power because each serves a different audience that is affected in unique ways. Finding ethical ways to travel with politicians or forgo comprehensive coverage is the modern dilemma.

3) Sometimes, the media need to declare: Enough already! Is every tweet that President Trump puts out worthy of a full day (or week) of coverage? Increasingly, stories are built around tweets. The news media need to assess their coverage and count the items on their agenda. What important news are they not covering when they follow President Trump down every rabbit hole? Are Trump’s tweets, more important than what is happening in Afghanistan? Or adequate funding for public education? Or problems with water quality? The national media jumped from covering Hurricane Harvey to Hurricane Irma to Hurricane Maria with the worst mass shooting in modern times in Las Vegas with scant follow ups of the aftermath. Local media, often even more fiscally challenged than the national media, must then step in and keep the important aftermath stories covered. Perhaps more specialized media (such as Propublica) is necessary, and partnerships between influential media can combine resources and amplify the importance of the true “intelligence of the day”?

Principle 4: Humaneness

Lambeth’s fourth principle is Humaneness. He refers to John Rawls’ concept of “the natural duties.” This means that journalists are required to give assistance to another in need. Likewise, journalists should do no direct, intentional harm to others, and should prevent suffering where possible” (Lambeth, Committed Journalism An Ethic for the Profession, 1986, p. 35). Although this seems clear cut, this can be a difficult decision for reporters covering war or a disaster. For example, when New Orleans was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, reporters had to decide whether to share their own limited supplies with people who were trying to escape on foot with no food or water in 100+ degree heat. Most journalists tried to compromise by giving some food and water to children. However, they believed their first duty was to cover the story so that the nation—and politicians—could see the suffering of thousands of people for a protracted period.

In the many natural disasters in the United States in 2017, the media have been invaluable in telling people when and where to evacuate and in showing the extent of the disaster. Devastated Puerto Rico, surrounded by an ocean, has needed the attention of the media, both to remind the public and government that Puerto Ricans are Americans and that long-term aid is required but coming too slowly.

Journalists reporting today should remember:

  1. This is an era of fear – fear of anyone not like ourselves. Some of this comes from unprecedented social upheaval — minorities becoming the majority, LGBTQ rights, continued arguments over abortion — coupled with declining education opportunities and various physical and mental health issues brought on by war and societal stress. Journalists should mitigate fear by bringing people together to face problems and understand cultural and religious difference. Lambeth would argue that if journalists are being responsible, the seeds of discord would be exposed and openly discussed before, rather than after, a riot or terrorist attack has occurred. The news media should follow up on successful efforts while analyzing any failures.
  2. Racism and terrorism must be covered, but explaining causes and effects should be part of the coverage.
  3. The media should do much more to protect the individual’s privacy. Journalists should agree to first do no harm, especially to the “collateral damage” that are often relatives of criminals. The stereotypical view of a hoard of journalists camped on a yard or stalking a celebrity to get a story do nothing to improve the public’s view of the journalism profession.
  4. Although Lambeth’s principle of humaneness was meant to apply to how journalists treat the subjects of their stories, today it should include how journalists treat each other and the people who work with them. Starting with Fox News, numerous powerful people in the news industry lost their jobs because of sexual harassment and sexual assault charges. NBC/MSNBC, CBS, NPR, the New York Times and The New Yorker dealt with internal investigations and firings resulting from workplace issues. Each publication or network has been transparent about the internal investigations, but in many cases, the abuse against female employees spanned many years. Humaneness should be practiced in the workplace.

Principle 5: Stewardship

Stewardship,” Lambeth’s fifth principle, is not a term that is found in any journalism code of ethics. But, this term, more than any other, encompassed the social responsibility theory. Lambeth relied on Webster’s dictionary for the definition as: “the individual’s responsibility to manage his life and property with proper regard to the rights of others.” Perhaps because he was an educator, Lambeth pointed to fellowships and other educational opportunities that journalists should use to improve their craft. He summarized this principle this way:

In journalism, (stewardship), requires that reporters and editors be alert to the relationship between the intellectual demands of the bodies of knowledge behind the news and their responsibilities under the codes to which they pay heed (Lambeth, Committed Journalism An Ethic for the Profession, 1986, p. 38).

Stewardship also requires that young people entering the profession are trained in both craft and ethics. Most newsrooms have a code of ethics in place, and new hires, especially young journalists, should be schooled in what the code means and the standards to which they will be held. Schools of journalism and mass communication play a role in this and should include an ethics class in their curricula. Today, stewardship means:

  1. Journalists need to take care of themselves and their profession in addition to their communities. The current generation of journalists have covered several horrible events and disasters. They need to be aware of post-traumatic stress symptoms and to have resources to help them cope without fear that editors and colleagues will think they are weak. We also have seen a number of journalists around the world kidnapped or jailed because they report on government leaders who do support freedom of the press. The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. CPJ has been critical of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for attacks on journalists whose reporting has included leaked information or those who were covering protests. Reporters Without Borders reports that in 2017 65 reporters were killed and 326 reporters are imprisoned worldwide. The media should support organizations such as these.
  2. Journalists need to think more about treating everyone, from President Trump to the homeless person on the street, with respect. This is so difficult in our current political climate, but in giving respect, the profession gains respect. Granted, President Trump’s language (sometimes not suitable for an audience that includes children) adds to the difficulty, but from the beginning of his presidential candidacy, he was often treated as a bad joke. When President Trump allegedly called some countries “shitholes,” the news media struggled with whether to use the actual word, to use “expletive deleted” or to use asterisks. Normally, journalists should avoid using such words in news coverage or to bleep out the words in a broadcast. Although, when people of authority make four-letter words a part of statements in their official capacities, the news media have little choice.
  3. Ultimately, as Lambeth noted, ethics is up to the individual. Newsrooms should welcome discussions about ethics and journalism standards. Journalists should criticize both their own organizations and other journalism organizations when ethical breaches occur. This again emphasizes the need for ethics education and discussion.


After discussing his five principles, Lambeth concluded: “To describe the ethical journalist as a humane truth teller who seeks justice and protects freedom as a faithful steward of his craft may well invite incredulity.” Perhaps most journalists working today, would agree. But, for Lambeth, the point is that journalists are human. While they may fall short, journalists nevertheless have a duty to know and adhere to these principles to the best of their ability when they are acting in socially responsible ways.

Good reasons exist to revisit Lambeth’s work more than 20 years after his second edition of Committed Journalism. The social responsibility theory, with renewed emphasis on media accountability, is still very much a concern of journalists today. Codes of ethics that lean toward the duty perspective are essential. But, journalists need to also consider their social responsibility and the consequences of their actions in the mass media/social media era.


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