Ethics in Journalism 101

The media has often been referred to as the 4th branch of government, serving as an outside force as a further check on the other 3 branches (executive, legislative and judicial). While most political reporting focuses on the executive and legislative branches, that reporting can have a powerful and important role in exposing corrupt or abusive practices by the judiciary. However, due to the power of the media to sway public opinion, it is critical that journalists and their editors publish their work according to the highest ethical standards. As one legal scholar put it, failing to do so results in,

incompetent legal reporting, which fuels the American public’s anti- court sentiment and fosters inaccurate views of the actual workings of the judicial system.

Recently, on July 18th, the Isthmus published an investigative piece on judicial overreach, Was judge pushing anti-gay agenda? It was the first media examination of a troubling case where an appointed county judge treated a same-sex couple horribly in a surrogate parenting case. Fortunately, his decision has been overturned, but the cost to the parents was huge both financially and emotionally.

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Much to my surprise, a full week later, on July 25th, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran virtually the same story on its front page with a huge picture, entitled ‘Activist judge’ compares surrogacy to human traffickingWhile I will leave it to journalism experts to determine if the Journal Sentinel’s article plagiarized the Isthmus’ article, one thing is very clear. The Journal Sentinel published its story acting as if it was breaking news and failed to mention in its lengthy article that the Isthmus had published a very similar article a full week earlier.

To be clear, there is no problem with the Journal Sentinel publishing a follow up story on judicial misconduct. But when it pretends that it broke old news first, it loses journalistic credibility and insults the original author of the Isthmus article. In an era of shrinking print journalism circulation, unethical journalistic behavior such as this only serves to reduce the capacity of the media to act as a credible 4th estate serving as a check on government misconduct. I contacted the reporter and editor at the Journal Sentinel yesterday to ask them for their response to  my concern and to date, I have not received a substantive response.

Systems change requires an effective and credible media. Increasingly, the traditional media has shifted to social media, but that has led to a loss of quality investigative journalism. Reporters and their editors who fail to credit original sources further denigrate the reputation of the media. Moreover, they discourage young journalists from entering the profession if they fear that larger media outlets will pretend that they broke news that smaller outlets broke earlier.

I have spent over 30 years developing good relationships with good journalists. When I work with a journalist, especially on a story that I am giving them an exclusive on, I must trust that they will do a good and ethical job. Good journalists know that if they violate that trust, they will lose their sources for important stories. Violation of trust makes systems change far more difficult. Hopefully, the Journal Sentinel will raise its journalistic standards and publish a credit to the Isthmus for its original story.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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