Ethics, Schmethics Part Two

I've been holding off on writing this post because I hoped things would turn around, but I don't think that's going to happen.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a piece on ethics in journalism and public relations. I wrote that piece the week I sent out a brief survey to a little more than 100 journalists and PR practitioners, most in the SF Bay Area. The questions were pretty straight forward.

"Are you aware of any published professional code of journalism or public relations ethics? If so, please name the organization that has published that code and do not answer the following questions.
"If not, have you made signed a document attesting to your adherence to a specific code of ethics from your place of employment?
"Is that code of ethics published by your place of employment and if so, where can it be found?"

I got about a 25 percent return on the survey, which is not bad, The sampling was pretty low, so I doubt you could call this scientific. But here's the thing. I only got one response from anyone who said they followed the Ethics Code from the Society of Professional Journalists. And that really is the definitive code in the US.

I also got one reference to the Association of Business Publication Editors, one to the Public Relations Society of America and one to the National Union of Journalists in the UK. But aside from the one response about SPJ's code, no one could remember what the codes said because it had been so long since they referred to them.

None of the PR people could identify a code of ethics in the PRSA although several on the corporate side mentioned codes internal to the companies…although none of the companies actually had them posted anywhere.

One disturbing comment was "there's an unwritten understanding that we will all behave ethically ..." OK, why is that disturbing? Because unless you have some idea what constitutes a baseline for ethics, how do you know when you are operating ethically? There is room for discussion about how far outside the line you can go before you are acting unethically. Morality is a gray issue for many, after all. But none of the respondents could state even a personal code of ethics in regards to journalism and public relations.

What was most disturbing for me personally was the almost complete lack of response from the daily newspaper people I work with. Two mentioned they "remembered something about some professional code" but weren't sure where it was. The rest of the survey was ignored by about 30 daily journalists.

The bottom line here is that I fear we've come to a place where the professional communicators on both sides (PR and newsgatherers) have taken the issue of ethics so for granted that it no longer means anything. When I was in J-school it was the time of Watergate, and journalists were considered highly respected and trustworthy. But in the December 2006 Gallup poll on ethics and honesty, Journalists rated just above state governors and just below chiropractors in terms of public perception. To be absolutely accurate, they rated 13th out of 25 professions, with only 25 percent of the population believing journalists had a high level of ethics. And that level has held steady for about 7 years now. Right about when print publications started tanking.

So when it comes down to why print and broadcast journalists are having a hard time keeping a job or making a living, this might be another reason…not just the shifting market.

What to do? As I said in my previous post. I'm putting my statement of ethics on display. Seek truth, minimize harm, act independently, be accountable. Anyone can call me on it if they like.