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American Journalism Review
Ethical Sensitivity Sometimes Overdone?  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   September 1991

Ethical Sensitivity Sometimes Overdone?   

Journalists once moon- lighted as advertising copywriters and even as speechwriters for politicians.

By John Morton
John Morton (, a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

There used to be an old saw in newspapering that said if it wasn't money and fit in your hip pocket, you could keep it.

The rationale was that any news source dumb enough to believe a reporter could be swayed by the gift of a pint of booze was...

well, dumb enough to believe it.

Standards were looser about a lot of things in journalism in earlier days than they are now. Newspapers regularly stole stories from competing papers with little or no additional reporting and minimal effort to alter the language (some radio and television news writers still do this).

Once it was not unusual to find journalists moonlighting as advertising copywriters and even as speechwriters for politicians. As recently as the 1970s, a prominent local television business reporter in Washington, D.C., appeared in advertisements touting a local brokerage. At least one hoary breach of ethics lives on at newspapers and magazines that allow travel writers to accept free transportation and lodging the better to report on some resort or other.

Most responsible journalistic organizations in recent decades, though, have established firm codes of conduct regarding "freebies," attribution and conflicts of interest. The major point of these codes is the need to avoid even the appearance of interest conflicts or impropriety.

In light of these more vigorous standards, it was unsettling recently to learn of notable lapses: A Wall Street Journal reporter who accepted three $1,000 tickets to a prizefight from the celebrity money-man Donald Trump, a Washington Post reporter fired for lifting language from a Miami Herald story, a New York Times reporter suspended temporarily for taking information from a Boston Globe story about, of all things, a college dean reprimanded for plagiarism.

If this has happened at the nation's leading journalistic institutions, what might be going on at lower levels that does not attract national attention? Do these events signify a loosening grasp on professional behavior by working journalists? Plagiarism and other dishonest work has recently surfaced in the academic and scientific fieldsand lapses in ethics in the business and financial worlds have become prevalent.

Perhaps there has been a slide in standards of personal actions everywhere, including journalism. After all, we live in a time in which a high White House official commits acts that a lesser bureaucrat would be fired for, or worse, acts that our president passes over as "an appearance problem."

Whatever the underlying cause, in journalism at least there is no excuse for accepting free tickets (or trips and rooms) to anything, nor for borrowing phrases and whole paragraphs without attribution from somebody else's work.

Yet I detect a hypersensibility about these matters that may unfairly besmirch honest journalists. First of all, consider rewriting. This involves recasting into different language known facts previously reported. The art of the craft requires reworking the facts in a way that does not unduly recall somebody else's work. If that is not possible, attribution is the only recourse.

I have studied before-and-after accounts of several instances of alleged plagiarism and, in some, wound up wondering what the fuss was all about. There often is a gray area between rewriting and plagiarism, but it seems to me that if the information is worth spreading for the benefit of the public weal (a fundamental goal of journalism), then the judgment of rewriting should be less harsh than it often is. I know I have seen my own insights, which I thought were at least fresh if not necessarily original, subsequently parroted by others without attribution. After an initial and mild irritation, I felt flattered that something I wrote or said in a speech was considered worth repeating by somebody else.

Or consider conflicts of interest. Accepting a "freebie" from a news source is clearly beyond the pale. But perhaps because conflicts once were so rife today's judgers seem eager to condemn any connection not fully revealed.

For example, I provide antitrust, appraisal, acquisition and other advice to several large media companies. They pay me for this. As a columnist for this magazine, I write about issues that affect these companies. I avoid obvious conflicts, or make them known when writing about them, but if I mentioned every possible personal connection many of my columns would be so larded with caveats that they would be unreadable.

Is this just my way of saying, if it fits in my pocket it's okay to keep it? I don't think so. I hope that what I have had to say over time has established my independence. But the reader will be the final judge.

Still, I and all others who write for publication should be extra vigilant now that issues about professionalism have become controversial. Thoughtlessness under deadline pressure or in dealing with news sources can be especially damaging, now that journalism has developed what can't be passed off as "an appearance problem." l



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