Whoa, there! Journalism's new code of ethics

The journalism profession is trying to reduce speeding on the information superhighway.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) adopted a new code of ethics this month and the main difference between the revamped code and and the one that had been in place since 1996 is that the new version addresses the alarming tendency to rush stuff onto the Web as soon as we hear about it, without taking the time to make sure it's true.

According to the new SPJ code, journalists should:

  • Verify information before releasing it

And —

  • Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

In other words, journalists should not:

  • Report that someone has died when that person is still very much alive (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords [D-Ariz.], January 2011; Joe Paterno, January 2012).
  • Report that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the Affordable Care Act when in fact it has upheld the Affordable Care Act (June 2012).
  • Report on the day of the Boston Marathon bombings that a Saudi suspect is in custody when the two Chechen suspects were not identified until three days later (April 2013).
  • Misidentify the gunman as the brother of the gunman in the Sandy Hook School massacre, nor incorrectly report that the gunman's mother worked at the school (December 2012).

Of course there's nothing new about journalists letting the desire to get it first override the imperative to first get it right. Think "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Less catchy, but almost as egregious, was the New York Post's front page headline reporting that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John KerryJohn KerryTime for Action on Bahrain When wise men attack: Why Gates is wrong about Clinton, Libya Internal memo: Refugee program vulnerable to fraud MORE had chosen then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) as his running mate in 2004. (In hindsight, the Missouri congressman might have been a better choice than Kerry's actual pick, Sen. John Edwards [D-N.C.])

Or how about the terrible moment in 1981 when ABC Newsmen Sam Donaldson and Frank Reynolds, reporting on the attempt on President Reagan's life, told viewers that Press Secretary James Brady had died of his wounds, only to report moments later Brady was still alive? As the normally laconic Reynolds said furiously, "Let's get it nailed down!"

For as long as human beings have gotten wind of some juicy tidbit of news, they have succumbed to the temptation to share it before verifying it. What's changed is the speed at which news spreads. And as the pace of news dissemination has increased, so, too, has the frequency with which inaccurate or wholly incorrect information gets passed along.

One might think that it wouldn't take that many embarrassments of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" variety to get news organizations to proceed with extreme caution, but you know the darned public: Folks want their information fix and they want it now.

Or so say the journalists. "If they see a headline on a Web site," New York Times standards editor Greg Brock told public editor Margaret Sullivan when she asked about Boston Marathon coverage errors, "they start looking for a complete and fully reported story from us, and they protest if they don't find it."

Perhaps. But I can remember polls taken after the Bush-Gore debacle in 2000 which found that a majority of viewers would have preferred to wait until the networks were sure about the outcome of the 2000 election rather than be told that Gore won, no Bush won, no, wait, it's too close to call.

It wasn't long ago that the so-called legacy media counted on their customers to understand that if they wanted reliable news, they needed to steer clear of upstart websites that flouted the lofty standards of verification held sacred by the mainstream. But when the big boys traffic in gossip as much as their scrappy new competitors do, they don't look like bastions of ethical journalism when they get scooped; they just look old and slow.

Hence the renewed emphasis on verification in the new code of ethics. Remember, journos, if your mother tweets she loves you, check it out.

Frank teaches journalism ethics at Penn State University.