Forging Commitments for a Journalistic Morality

2003-09-15
 
A young reporter for Sudden Weekly magazine pays HK$300 to a security guard to allow him to take unauthorized photographs of a film shoot of a hotly anticipated movie of a famous Hong Kong director.

While some might have been impressed with the reporter's initiative, Hong Kong prosecutors were not. They said the reporter broke the law. In August, he was sentenced to three months in jail after pleading guilty to offering bribes to the security guard. The following month, the security guard was sentenced to 10 weeks.

Why did the reporter do it? Was he just highly ambitious? Or did pressures push him to violate legal and ethical standards? In the intense, cutthroat world of Hong Kong journalism, what is the norm?

Paying bribes to get stories is hardly unprecedented in Hong Kong and elsewhere. In 2000, an Apple Daily reporter was given a 10-month jail sentence after admitting to paying tens of thousands of dollars to two police communications officers for confidential crime information. At the time, a lawyer for the reporter said that fierce competition in the industry was to blame for the reporter's actions.


Checkbook Journalism

Unquestionably, pressures exist for exclusive information and photographs, particularly in crime and entertainment stories. Around the world, news organizations grapple with issues of “checkbook journalism”.

In the United Kingdom, it is an accepted practice to pay witnesses for their stories. The guidelines for such payments, particularly in criminal cases, are spelled out in the U.K. Code of Practice, adopted by the British Press Complaints Commission in 1997. For example, “an editor authorizing a payment must be prepared to demonstrate that there is a legitimate public interest at stake involving matters that the public has a right a know.” The code also requires that such payments be disclosed. The code, however, does draw the line at making payments to “convicted and confessed criminals”. Regardless of payments to witnesses and sources, it is unacceptable - and illegal - to offer money to public officials for confidential information.

In the United States, the ethical standard is to never pay for stories. A typical admonition is from the Society of Professional Journalists: “Journalists should be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.” The Radio Television News Directors Association is more blunt: “Professional electronic journalists should not pay news sources who have a vested interest in a story.” But sometimes the media, especially the electronic media, get around the standard by paying for “expenses”.

In Hong Kong, most journalists oppose paying for confidential information. More than three-quarters of them say it is “never” acceptable to pay a source or give something of value for information or an interview, according to a new Journalism and Media Studies Centre survey of more than 400 working journalists in Hong Kong. Thirteen percent say that paying is permissible only when stories involve “public interest” and eight percent say it is okay when no alternative exists. Of the 422 journalists surveyed, only 12 said that in the past year they have actually paid or given something of value to sources with a half dozen giving cash.

These attitudes are reflected in other surveys. In a 1990 Chinese University survey of Hong Kong journalists, less than 20 percent said it was “proper” or “absolutely proper” to pay others for confidential information, although one-third indicated it was “hard to say”.

In the United States, just 17.3 percent of journalists think that paying people for confidential information "may be justified”, according to the latest American Journalist Survey by Indiana University in 2002. That's down from a similar survey 20 years earlier in which 27 percent thought the practice was justified.


Journalistic Morality

Many newsrooms choose to articulate their standards on this issue as well as many other ethical concerns in various codes of conduct for staff members. Here in Hong Kong, RTHK, TVB and The South China Morning Post have ethics codes that are given to employees. RTHK’s “Producers’ Guidelines” is one of the more detailed, covering everything from impartiality and accuracy to conflicts of interest and respect for privacy. The newspaper, Ming Pao, is currently in the process of designing a code.

But even a 38-page ethics code issued in January of this year by The New York Times - which had codified long-standing guidelines and added new ones - did not prevent reporter Jayson Blair from fabricating information or plagiarizing others’work. He was accused of committing journalistic fraud in several dozen articles. A typical example was a March 27 story from West Virginia in which Blair wrote about the reaction of the family of Private Jessica Lynch to the news of Lynch’s release in Iraq. But Blair had not visited the family. He was in Brooklyn, lifting details from other newspaper accounts and making up the rest.

This was despite Section 2.18 of “Ethical Journalism : Code of Conduct for the News and Editorial Departments,”which states: “Staff members who plagiarize or who knowingly or recklessly provide false information for publication betray our fundamental pact with our readers. We will not tolerate such behavior.”

The New York Times did not tolerate Blair’s behavior. Almost immediately after his deceptions were disclosed, Blair resigned. Weeks later, the two top editors of The New York Times also resigned, in part because of the Blair fiasco.

Why do journalists cut ethical corners? Why do they jeopardize their careers? These questions were posed recently by Dr. Robert Steele, the journalism ethics guru of the U.S.-based Poynter Institute. According to Steele: “Some may not understand policies. Others may consciously violate standards because they either disagree with them or they feel trapped by other pressures, like deadlines or competition. Some journalists behave badly because of personal problems. Some make ethical mistakes because of a failure of skills -- factual errors or unfair reporting. Some journalists set off ethical problems by a conflict of interest that undermines their integrity.”

Steele and other ethicists say it's the duty of newsroom leaders to establish, articulate and enforce those guidelines. Many have done that. Some news organizations like The New York Times presented its code with little input from staff members. Others like Ming Pao are holding a series of consultations and discussions to come up with a consensus of standards.

At Ming Pao, editors and reporters are discussing standards involving gifts from sources, personally held financial investments and when journalists have a duty to disclose potential conflicts. They also are considering to what degree journalists may participate in the political process. They will put a proposed code to a vote by the staff, and only those sections with majority support will be adopted, says Kevin Lau, in-house legal counsel for Ming Pao. (Three years ago in the aftermath of journalistic scandal, the Hong Kong Journalists Association and three other journalism groups revised a code of ethics, offering it as a model.)


Self Regulation and Commitment

Indeed, every news organization should have an ethics code to guide and inspire staff members. The code can also serve to remind management that there are boundaries for them as well. Many reporters say they are told to get the story using any means. Codes can hold management accountable too.

In addition to creating codes of conduct, newsrooms can provide greater in-house training that explain the codes and examine their context within international standards of best practices. Management should also seek to reduce journalist workloads to minimize the incentives for engaging in unethical behavior. Through these and other methods of self-regulation, Hong Kong's media could go a long way in alleviating public concern and scrutiny over their newsgathering and publishing practices.

Every newsroom has its own pressures on those who must produce for it every day, whether it comes from management or the journalists themselves. Journalists also must remember that it's up to each one of them to think about these issues and make the personal commitment to abide by ethical standards, including his or her own bottom line.

“No code can make a journalist a person of good conscience,” Melvin Mencher, a former journalism educator at Columbia University, once said. “Only a personal commitment to a journalistic morality can do so.”
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