By Casey Bukro
One of the questions roiling journalism’s waters these days is, what defines a journalist?
One of the answers sometimes given is that a journalist is defined by what he or she does — committing acts of journalism like writing, reporting, editing or producing something that gives people information.
Usually standards exist for doing those activities, such as the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
Lately, though, some broadcast journalists have shown that they might be confused about those standards, or simply ignored them. Or, are they leading the way toward a new era when broadcast opinion and partiality are overwhelmingly becoming the standards?
The most notorious case is Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who was suspended without pay for six months, for falsely reporting that he had been on a helicopter shot down in Iraq. Actually, another helicopter had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and forced down.
Williams apologized for the exaggeration, saying: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” The military publication Stars and Stripes had reported that Williams’ account of the incident was inaccurate.
“The episode has called into question not only the credibility of Mr. Williams but also the ethics and culture at NBC News,” The New York Times reported. NBC is investigating whether Williams exaggerated other reports, and will decide whether Williams returns to his post.
The SPJ ethics code says: Seek truth and report it.
Less prominent is the case of ABC News analyst and anchor George Stephanopoulis, who apologized for donating $75,000 to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation without disclosing his donation to the network, as required. The donations were reported in the foundation’s public disclosure.
“We accept his apology,” ABC said in a statement. “It was an honest mistake.”
Stephanopoulos called the donations an “uncharacteristic lapse.”
His actions led to demands that Stephanopoulos recuse himself from all 2016 election coverage.
Critics recall that Stephanopoulos served President Bill Clinton as a political strategist before moving into broadcasting, despite allegations that he lacked journalistic objectivity.
“But with his acknowledgment that he had given a significant sum to the Clinton Foundation, he found himself facing accusations that he was effectively trying to buy favor with his former employers as Mrs. Clinton seeks the presidency for a second time,” reported the New York Times.
The Stephanopoulos disclosures prompted Judy Woodruff, PBS News Hour co-anchor, to make an on-air disclosure of her own: She said she gave $250 to the Clinton Foundation “for charitable purposes.”
The SPJ code says: Be accountable and transparent. It also says: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
But are traditional standards and values still important, now that opinion or advocacy journalism are so widespread online? If those traditional standards were as entrenched as they seemed during Walter Cronkite’s day, when he was considered one of the most trusted men in journalism, perhaps Williams and Stephanopoulos would not have overlooked them so easily till they were caught.
Add to their stumbles the recent case of Rolling Stone, which apologized for reporting an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia, a story based largely on one anonymous source. The story later was discredited by police and Rolling Stone was sued.
These cases, says Stephen J.A. Ward, a University of British Columbia ethicist, point to a “striking fragmentation” in journalism ethics and how they are applied, holding some anchors and reporters to the ideal of objectivity and independence while others are not.
“This only points to the utter breakdown of any consensus on journalism ethics,” said Ward.
The SPJ ethics code says: Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.
With changing perspectives in journalism, it’s important for news organizations to adopt written standards, so employees understand the standards that govern their organization. As journalism changes, these standards might change depending on how news organizations define themselves.
Their audiences, too, benefit from knowing what to expect.