Readers, Editors Diverge On Ethics  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   June 1997

Readers, Editors Diverge On Ethics   

A Charlotte experiment gives us something to think about.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


Readers and viewers think journalists should have higher ethical standards. Right? Maybe not.

Perhaps they do as a general proposition. But presented with specific questions about conflicts of interest and other touchstones of ethical conduct, they may not be as demanding as journalists are.

Ed Williams, who runs fresh and informed editorial pages at the Charlotte Observer, recently conducted an experiment. He asked his readers to respond to a multiple-choice questionnaire in his column and had 10 Observer editors do the same. About 240 readers sent responses.

On most questions the editors and readers were similar in their judgments, but they differed greatly on conflict-of-interest questions. The editors were "much less forgiving" than the readers, Williams wrote in a
follow-up column.

The discussion of ethics among journalists has been pervasive in recent times. Although journalists rightly resist any formal industry-wide codification of the rules, news organizations increasingly have adopted clear and detailed ethics and conflict-of-interest policies.

More important, journalists without doubt have become more sensitive to the nuances of many ethical questions involving substance and appearance. A given problem may still elicit diverse answers from different reporters and editors, but on many issues the framework for the decision-making is more clearly established than ever.

The Observer's Williams noted these disparities in his experiment (which used questions he borrowed from professors Philip Meyer of North Carolina and David Arant of the University of Memphis):

Whether to pay an informant who had reliable information about payoffs to a fictional mayor and city council, editors (100 percent) said no. Only 18 percent of the readers said no.

When asked what to do about a city hall reporter who had gotten so close to the mayor and his staff that they frequently consulted him before making a decision, 100 percent of the editors said they would fire, admonish or reassign the reporter, but only 70 percent of the readers said they would. Some 29 percent of the readers said they would reward the reporter for his knowledge of the subject and for having such loyal sources.

On that one, the editor of the Observer, Jennie Buckner, had a question about the question. Had the reporter actually given the advice he was asked for? "If so," she said, "fire him."

A reporter working on inequities in tax assessments discovers that his own taxes were not increased after he recorded a value-enhancing addition to his property. He puts this into his story, then decides to take it out. The editors (100 percent) said he should put it back in, even though this would raise his taxes by $300. Only 46 percent of the readers thought he should be required to do this.

What does all this tell us? I'm not sure. I wonder whether lawyers' clients would say they are too finicky about some of their basic ethical standards, or whether patients would think their doctors are. Or whether the journalists' cult is just uniquely baffling to normal people.

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