A former publisher of mine at the San Francisco Chronicle once defined working for a newspaper this way:
“We’re in the truth business,” he said.
In five words, the publisher summed up, not only the public interest, journalistic mission of a newspaper, but also a key element of the financial side.
This statement, keep in mind, came not from some dewy-eyed reporter in the newsroom - but from a gimlet-eyed business executive, a bottom-line guy whose job was to maximize profit.
What he was saying is that the single most important asset of any newspaper is its credibility.
A newspaper’s credibility is the measure of trust that its customers place in what they read every day.
Readers rightfully expect their news to be as true, accurate, fair, balanced, complete, unbiased, and without fear or favor for special interests as is possible in a deadline-driven business.
This credibility is important, both to readers and to advertisers, who place ads in the paper, not only for its audience and its distribution system, but also for the benefit of implied trust that derives from credibility.
But if credibility is the key to success, how do newspapers achieve it? What are the criteria and the means for attaining credibility?
THE SPJ CODE OF ETHICS
Simply put, credibility derives from ethical newsgathering and reporting practices.
Fortunately for journalists, we don’t have to guess about what those are. The ethics of journalism are written down and plainly stated by the Society of Professional Journalists, in its Code of Ethics.
This code, which I encourage you all to read for yourself at www.spj.org, is used by many newspapers across America as the framework for ethical practices.
And it’s a big reason why newspapers are different than any other manufactured product. Cereal makers have to follow health and safety codes - but there’s no ethical test for Cheerios.
The code has been a guiding light for the news business since 1926, and has been revised four times since then, most recently in September 1996.
During my tenure at the News-Press, we referred to it frequently, in helping us to clarify and to make the kinds of difficult decisions that often confront editors. We gave copies to staff members, and to our interns, and from time to time we had discussions and brown bags and notes from the editors referring to it, particularly when knotty ethical problems presented themselves.
Day to day, it served as a road map for the practice of ethical journalism, in deciding such issues as the use of anonymous sources; the relevance of a person’s race or ethnicity to a story; or whether or when to publish names or images of juveniles in news stories.
There has been considerable reporting, discussion and debate about ethics at the Santa Barbara News-Press in the past several weeks.
It is surprising, however, that few of the many stories referred to the Code of Ethics in examining and analyzing the issues that brought us here tonight.
I was invited here to speak about journalistic ethics, and in doing so, I want to talk in some detail about the SPJ code, and walk you through what I view as the connections between some of its tenets and recent events.
Before doing so, however, I want to make a few, brief personal observations.
First, to me, what has happened to the paper and the people who work, or who used to work there, since July 6 is extraordinarily sad. It is the most heart-breaking experience in journalism in my 32 years in the business.
Second, as some of you may have read, several other journalists and myself have been threatened with lawsuits for speaking publicly about these issues. For this reason, I’m going to address my comments only to upon incidents that have been widely reported on in the public domain, as I have consistently done since leaving the paper.
Finally, I want to say that I loved my job and I loved the paper; I have great admiration and affection for all my colleagues and great respect for their work and for their work ethic.
So I’m not here to attack or to bash the News-Press, or anyone associated with it. And I’m not a spokesman for anyone but myself or any agenda except ethical, quality journalism.
Ethical, quality journalism, as articulated in the SPJ Code of Ethics, is the reason that nine professional journalists, most of them with decades in the business, left the paper within days of each other.
I can tell you that it’s not an easy thing for people with kids or mortgages, or both, to go home and tell your family you’ve done that, and I can assure you nine people didn’t choose to do so lightly.
Now the factual incidents underlying this dispute - a drunk driving case, a zoning hearing involving a celebrity and a management shuffle at a local paper - at first glance may seem insignificant. This is especially true at a time when national papers are involved in sweeping First Amendment battles involving war, secrecy and patriotism.
But if the back stories of the News-Press controversy are small-caliber stuff, the journalistic principles underlying it are anything but. I believe this case has generated so much passionate community reaction and attracted national attention because of the fundamental importance of these values.
WHAT THE CODE SAYS
The SPJ Code of Ethics outlines the principles of professional journalism in clear, simple, plain language that fits on two pages.
The preamble of the code says this: “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the society’s principles and standards of practice.”
The code states a few fundamental principles, and a series of specific guidelines that offer pathways for journalists to achieve these aims.
I no longer work at the News-Press because I believed that a series of decisions, with which I disagreed, ran counter to the Code of Ethics in a way that was untenable.
These concerns boil down to three key issues: the church-state divide, double standards and public accountability. Let me touch on each of them in turn, and tell you specifically how they relate to guidelines in the Code of Ethics.
CHURCH AND STATE
American newspapers operate under a so-called “church-state” structure in which newsgathering and reporting operations function separately and independently from the editorial and opinion pages.
This structure reflects a guideline of the first section of the Code of Ethics that states newspapers should “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.”
This notion circles back to credibility: readers should be able to trust that reporting in the news sections is free from reflecting any bias, slant or agenda, including the editorial page, the section of the paper that rightfully reflects the views of a newspaper’s owner.
When I returned to Santa Barbara from vacation a few weeks ago, I learned, as has been widely reported, that in my absence, the editorial page editor was given authority over the news-gathering operation, with control over the selection, placement, content and editing of news stories.
To me, and to others, this change meant that the line between church and state had not only been crossed but obliterated. It seemed clear that the Code of Ethics guideline to “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting” was being breached.
As a practical matter, what does that mean?
When 150 news organizations around the world, from Hindustan, India, to Jackson, Mississippi, published or broadcast stories on July 7 about the departure of senior editors and the star columnist at the paper, the Santa Barbara News-Press was not among them.
Instead, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times, a news story prepared by a reporter was spiked, as we say in the business. In its place, prominently displayed on the front page, the paper ran an opinion piece from the “acting publisher,” who nevertheless was identified on the masthead as the editorial page editor.
There are two other guidelines of the code that seem relevant to this issue: The first says, a newspaper should “support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.”
The second says a paper should “clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.”
I will leave it to your judgment whether the News-Press met those tests in the days after July 6.
ACCOUNTABILITY TO THE PUBLIC
Turning to the issue of accountability, the Code of Ethics calls on journalists to “be accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.”
One of the specific guidelines for doing that says that journalists should, “Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”
Since my days at the Chronicle when we reported in detail and depth on the controversial sale of our own paper, one thing that has always meant to me is that a newspaper ought to cover itself with the same standards that it uses in covering everyone else.
Among other things, that says to me that there should not be special treatment for public figures who work at the paper that differs from that afforded a public official or any other public figure who does not.
Yet, as reported by the Associated Press on July 6, the News-Press spiked a story about the drunk driving case of perhaps its highest profile executive, although such stories ran in the past about public officials in similar brushes with the law.
I strongly disagreed with that action, because I did not believe that the paper in doing so was abiding by “the same high standards” to which it holds others.
Finally on the issue of double standards, the Code of Ethics says that “journalists should be free of obligations to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”
It also says that newspapers should, “deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests, and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.”
When News-Press editors decided to publish the address of a lot in Montecito, where a celebrity actor wants to build his “dream house,” they were serving the primary interest called for in their ethics code: the public’s right to know.
That address was clearly a matter of public record, identified on public documents relating to the project, referred to repeatedly by citizens and public officials throughout a long public hearing, and even broadcast on a television station that covered that hearing.
By contrast, the addresses of properties owned by lesser known people who become involved in development controversies had often been printed by the paper.
But, as the Associated Press reported July 6, when the celebrity actor complained about the paper publishing the address in a news story about the hearing, four journalists involved with the story were punished for doing so, and their professional credentials impugned.
Now the question of whether to print an address may be seen as a trivial matter, a judgment call of little account. But when such decisions, no matter how small, are removed from the newsroom - where the only interest that matters is “the public’s right to know” - and placed into the front office, it puts the paper on a slippery slope in defining exactly what other interests should influence news judgments.
THE DUTY OF STEWARDSHIP
So after 32 years in the newspaper business, I felt forced to leave the best job I’ve ever had because I felt that the clear ethical principles guiding our work and our judgment in the newsroom had been serially compromised, and I couldn’t live with that.
Since the day I was suddenly hustled out of the newsroom without a chance to say goodbye to my colleagues of four years, I’ve been accused in print of a variety of motives for my action.
I’ve read, variously, that I had a vendetta, that I disagreed with an unspecified new direction of the paper, that I wanted to publish biased news stories, that I had violated journalistic policies and, my favorite, that I didn’t want to cover local news.
Tonight, I am here to tell you that I, and I believe the others, left for one, fundamental reason: journalistic ethics. I invite everyone in this audience to read the news coverage and the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists and decide for yourself.
The News-Press is a great and historic institution that was here long before any of us arrived and that hopefully will be here long after we’re gone.
I have been privileged over the last four years to act as a steward of that institution, and I have tried throughout to protect and to nurture it, both as a private enterprise and as a public trust, first and foremost by strengthening its credibility.
I am grateful for that opportunity of stewardship and I am grateful to this community.
Thank you for your readership, for your support - and your criticism - of the paper during my tenure and, most of all, for caring so deeply about quality journalism.
Thank you very much.