Campus / News / April 23, 2009

Ethics and law in media

Professor of media ethics and law Jane Kirtley from the University of Minnesota spoke at Knox on April 16 to present a workshop and a lecture about ethical journalism, both at a college and a professional level. Kirtley has been employed as both a journalist and a lawyer, and she introduced the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics in her workshop.

While the Code of Ethics is a generally adopted code by most newspapers and journalists, there is nothing that legally binds a journalist or newspaper to such a code.

“We speak about [journalism] as a profession, but if you say you’re a journalist, you are [a journalist] as far as the law is concerned,” said Kirtley. “The Supreme Court never did really define what the press is.”

The four main tenets of the Code of Ethics are that journalists should seek truth and report it, minimize harm to those involved in the story, act independently (avoid conflicts of interest and bribes), and be accountable. This is not the only code of ethics for journalists, but it is the one that is most widely referred to.

Kirtley said that many people need to know how to draw the distinction between law and ethics, though they do sometimes cross lines. In Kirtley’s opinion, “Judges don’t have business trying to define journalism ethics.” There is, however, one constant ethic in the business of reporting.

“A journalist never knowingly publishes a falsehood,” said Kirtley. “Everything else is up for debate.”

Furthermore, Kirtley encouraged the questioning of authority in the business of journalism and said that all journalists should be honest, fair, and courageous. In the second tenet of the Code of Ethics, minimizing harm, Kirtley said that the journalist must consider what is essential information and what is harmful information, and judge when something harmful is also a piece of crucial information that needs to be used.

Another question raised by some who attended the workshop was whether objective journalism truly exists. Because of the polarization of media in recent years that make networks like Fox News and Democracy Now! even more divided, it may seem difficult to find a middle ground.

The last point Kirtley touched on was the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and what authority it has over media publications and broadcasts. Kirtley explained that while, at one time, there was a list of specific words that were not allowed in public media outlets, over the last 20 years the rules have evolved into decency rules, and indecency does not always equal obscenity.

“Obscenity is not protected by the first amendment anywhere, but the question is what obscenity is,” said Kirtley. Indecency, however, is protected by the Constitution. By the FCC’s indecency rules, people can basically say or do whatever they want in media outlets between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the focus being on indecency to children.

The problem of prior review is also an issue for those who wonder if something they will publish or say or do over the radio or television is offensive and would like an organization like the FCC to look it over beforehand so they do not get in trouble. Prior review is the most problematic form of censorship, and for this reason the FCC will not tell the publisher or broadcaster if something will be indecent until it is released into a media outlet. If no one complains about something indecent that slips through outside of the indecency hours, the FCC does nothing about it.

While journalists cannot be kicked out of the profession for ethical breaches like a lawyer can be disbarred, it is considered good media ethics to follow a code like the SPJ. The editorial staff of The Knox Student is currently in the process of expanding the code to cover Knox-specific ethical issues before formally adopting it.

Annie Zak


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