Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ethics, lies, and journalism (sorry, no sex or video)

Posted By on 02.20.08 at 02:10 PM

Chicagoist writes: "Did the president of Medill use made-up quotes in a newsletter [actually, it's an alumni magazine, if there's a difference, which is kind of an interesting question]? We...barely care. What really bugs us is journalists citing the existence of Facebook group as some kind of indicator of anything--'students and alumni joined the new "Save Journalism at Medill" group on Facebook.'" And later in comments: "As far as the Medill thing...am I really supposed to get worked up about quotes that might be fudged in a letter in an alumni magazine? Aren't those essentially propaganda anyway?"

Finally: "But convince me. I'm all ears (well...eyes)."

OK, I'll bite, particularly since this question comes up anytime a journalist gets heat for making up boilerplate quotes. This question came up during the Jayson Blair saga which, as you'll recall, started over pretty innocuous falsehoods. Occasionally someone will make up something from scratch, like Stephen Glass did, but the more frequent sin is people cheating around the edges, because most reporters, even the least ethical of them, don't have a death wish.

I think Jack Shafer summarizes the need to punish fabricators best: "Hence, most reporters don't make things up because 1) they're as ethical as Jesus Christ or 2) they know they'll get caught."

Most reporters aren't as ethical as Jesus Christ, and that's why journalists go out of their way to call out their less ethical colleagues. Every day newspapers print thousands of words about everything from state secrets to toe readers, and with some rare exceptions, only a couple people will vet those words for accuracy. It's simply impossible to do otherwise, and so those people simply have to be trusted in their honesty.

You could argue that it's worse to fabricate quotes in a news article about civic issues, a features article about some dumb crap, and in an alumni magazine article about how swell Medill is. There's certainly a spectrum of potential damage there.

But all journalists have are their balls and their word, and they go out of their way to protect them. The penalties are severe because the trust between reader and writer is what sustains the whole enterprise, which is to say the whole structure that delivers information to the general public, not to mention the structure as livelihood for lots and lots of people. There are abstract ethical arguments for punishing fabricators--i.e. you should penalize the act, not the damage or the lack thereof--but the practical argument is that you should put the fear of God into journalists as a way of reinforcing the trust which allows people to believe in the most important things that journalists report.

It's also a matter of quality: if Lavine did in fact make up a couple dumb quotes he could have gotten from a real person, it's just a really fucking lazy thing to do. It's been suggested that Blair made up stuff because he was lazy, because he wasn't a good enough reporter, because he was overstretched by too many stories, and because he had a tremendous blow habit. If you lie instead of working harder, improving, learning to balance your workload, or cutting back on the coke, you're going to suck at your job.

Finally, journalists demand transparency from their subjects. They demand to know why legal, governmental, and business decisions are made; they insist on knowing what the rules of the game are. So it only makes sense that the watchdogs should be transparent about their own systems as well. Which is why it's valuable to ask "what's the big deal?" and equally valuable to try to answer it. It gives readers a chance to see what our rules are and what the penalties are for breaking them.

And in this instance there's more at stake than a single ethical violation. John Lavine is a polarizing figure at Northwestern, and before this latest controversy he's been in hot water over curricular changes at Medill and the means by which those changes were implemented. Lavine's own appointment came after Medill found itself, as Michael Miner puts it, an "academic basket case," and there's a great deal of concern at the school that its marketing instruction is bleeding into its journalism instruction. "Old-fashioned journalists will concede they inevitably overlap, and argue the function of a journalistic education isn’t to learn how to take marketing into account but to learn how not to," Miner writes.

In other words, the intersection between marketing and journalism is already a flashpoint at Medill, so it makes perfect sense that a question of journalism ethics arising over a publication that resides in an uncomfortable point between the two, an alumni magazine, would cause a fight.

No matter the result, a great deal of good could come out of this. The whole point of Medill is that it's a microcosm of the industry, and it allows students to work through the various aspects of the job in a controlled environment before putting their training into practice in the real world. I'm sure it's frustrating to be there right now, but look on the bright side: it's not often that exciting real events so quickly and perfectly line up with boring abstract ethical discussions, so I'm sure they're getting a hell of an education right now.

Update: Eric Zorn has a fascinating post about the Medill faculty who didn't sign the petition.

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