A debate over what makes a “true” journalist was sparked recently by the secret interview of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera conducted by actor Sean Penn and published in Rolling Stone in January of 2016. Those who believe Penn correct in describing himself as a journalist cite prior interviews he conducted with other world figures. Others claim the interview itself was shallow and did not dive deep enough into the world of drugs and violence over which El Chapo ruled before being captured – again. The arguments echo a current shift in the field of journalism, which started with the proliferation of blogs – which any person with a computer and Internet access can write – and carries through to the age of cable news channels, where all stories are delivered with a slant and facts have nothing to do with what makes a good story. On the edge of a constant barrage of 24/7 news and the influence of the blogosphere, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pick up the thread of true journalism, which weaved its way through history based on relatively simple, unvariable tenets.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), there are four principles that form the foundation of ethical journalism. The SPJ Code of Ethics is not intended as a firm set of rules under which a piece of news reporting can be judged in order to determine its worthiness, but rather guides professional journalists to seek accuracy, thoroughness and fairness in their reporting.
The Code of Ethics advises journalists to “Seek Truth and Report It.” Reliable, trustworthy sources of information should be used and identified clearly. The motives of sources who wish to remain anonymous should be examined, and it should be granted only to prevent harm or retribution to the source or in cases where the information is available nowhere else. In any case, the reason for anonymity should be explained clearly. An ethical journalist also sets aside biases or stereotypes in order to truthfully tell the story – even if the story is personally distasteful. Any commentary should be clearly labeled as such.
Secondly, journalists are told to “Minimize Harm.” Any information gleaned of a private or potentially embarrassing nature should be weighed against the public’s right to know it. Compassion should be showed to victims of sex crimes, to juveniles or to those unable to give free, informed consent to the release of information. Journalists are advised to stay on the high road – no baiting and switching with provocative headlines. The long-term nature of news and its worldwide reach, thanks to the digital age, should be considered when reporting, and updates or clarifications should be provided when necessary.
The third principle of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics is to “Act Independently.” Journalists are not to take bribes or receive any gain from reporting of the news a certain way. Above all, credibility should be maintained. Ads should be clearly evident and identified so as not to be mistaken for news.
Lastly, journalists must “Be Accountable and Transparent.” Those reporting news should stand by what they report and be willing to defend and explain their stories at all costs. Errors should be acknowledged and corrected, and errors or unethical behavior by journalism colleagues should be reported.
A close examination of the tenets that guide modern journalism reveal that at the base level, those who seek to report truth are guided at the core by a healthy measure of common sense. The job of a journalist is to uncover news through legal, ethical means and reliable sources and then to report it without ulterior motives or for personal gain. Any actions taken to gather and report news should be done compassionately and in a straightforward manner which does not deceive or fool the audience. The only motive for reporting news should be the desire to share accurate information to an audience in order to enlighten or educate. News should be clearly labeled as such, and ads or commentary should also be readily identified. Anything disseminated as news to an audience must stand up to scrutiny both in the facts and in the way they were gathered. Journalists must be willing to admit their mistakes and serve as a watchdog for accurate news.
The way in which news is reported and shared has changed significantly from the days of town criers and newspaper boys, but changes in technology have made no impact on the basic tenets of journalism. When applied to Penn or to Fox News, the answer regarding whether or not each’s output constitutes journalism is apparent.
Editorial by Jennifer Pfalz
Society of Professional Journalists: SPJ Code of Ethics
Rolling Stone: El Chapo Speaks
Page Six: Actual writer slams Penn interview: Worse than an entry-level journalist
Time: Sean Penn Was Doing Journalism Long Before ‘El Chapo’ Interview
New Republic: Trump, Fox News, and the End of “Fair and Balanced”
Image Courtesy of Dennis Skley’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License