Beanery Online Literary Magazine

June 27, 2008

INTEGRITY: A JOURNALISTIC CODE OF ETHICS REVIEW

Responding to a telephone complaint, an animal shelter representative, Nadine, visited Erica, who had taken in forty homeless cats. Nadine, director of the no-kill shelter, confiscated all the cats but ten. She takes three to the animal shelter. These she advertised as “rescued” cats that need a home. She claimed that the others are not spayed, and have not had their shots. In addition, they are so disease ridden that she took them where they were euthanized. The next animal shelter newsletter published an article on the dastardly care these forty cats were subjected to, dunning Erica in the process.

On investigation, I learned that Erica had, within the previous two weeks, had a written health record on all the felines: they were all neutered, had their shots, and were in good health. The documentation included statements from another animal advocate whose agency had helped pay for the medical treatments. Furthermore, even though Erica’s home environment was far under my standards (and my standards are not necessarily high!), she made certain her cat’s litter was kept clean and the cat’s were fed. These animals, most of which were dropped off by people wanting to rid themselves of their responsibility, were loved. And Erica had attempted on many an occasion to divest herself of these pets by contacting the animal shelter, which responded by stating they would not take the animals in.

Nadine was not a journalist. However, by publicizing this case in her shelter’s newsletter, a media format, she failed to act with integrity. In fact, that integrity was lacking throughout her entire actions.

Perhaps Nadine saw her job as a cat “protector,” someone who needed to remove the cats from an environment that was not up to her standards. Whatever the case, her investigation was not adequate and, for a director of a no-kill shelter, her actions did not have integrity. According to many community members, the article and photographs were designed to advance the purpose: to raise money for the shelter and to elevate her name in the eye of the public.

As a freelance writer, I discovered the truth while investigating this story for an article. Had Nadine done her job, she too could have discovered the truth. It was very easy to do. It was all documented.

I recently read a story about the global release of “stunning photos” of newly discovered Amazon Indians on the Brazilian-Peruvian border. It was intriguing to see the photos taken of the “newly discovered” tribe.  

Shortly, another story was carried by some publications: the mission to photograph the Indians was undertaken to prove that ‘uncontacted’ tribes still existed, and that their habitat was in an area endangered by the logging industry.

Several days later, José Carlos Meirelles, 61, disclosed the fact that this tribe was first known about almost a century ago. Meirelles works for Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, coordinating government efforts  to protect four “uncontacted” tribes.

He defended the actions, which also invaded the here-to-fore policy of maintaining privacy of the tribes, by stating he planned the publicity to protect the Indians, and other tribes in similar danger, from losing the dense jungle habitat in which they have flourished for hundreds of years.

The potential crisis is Peruvian loggers, who are closing in on the Indians’ homeland. Although, Brazil has no logging yet, the Peruvian logging has sent many Indians fleeing into Brazil, according to Meirelles.

In addition, road construction, including a new road being paved from Peru into Acre, have led to 30 miles of rain forest being cut down on each side, scientists say.

The publication of this story broke journalistic ethics codes on at least three points: use of the media for advocacy, telling the truth and

I question the ethics involved in the above two situations, a reduction of which raises questions about the credibility of the writers involved. I will hold these ethics agains the mirror of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Boston Globe newspaper, the Chicago Tribune and BusinessWeek.

The preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists states that members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.

According to the BusinessWeek code of ethics, the press the press in our society enjoys a remarkable degree of freedom. With that freedom comes the responsibility to practice our craft in accordance with the highest standards, to be accountable for what we publish, and to avoid conflicts of interest

The Chicago Tribune Company (“Tribune”) considers credibility an indispensable asset. To insure that their credibility is not damaged, editorial staff members have a special responsibility to avoid conflicts of interest or any activity that would compromise their journalistic integrity.

MEDIA HONESTY
At all times, the media must seek the truth and report it, according to the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. Honesty requires fairness and courage in gathering, reporting and interpreting information, including testing the accuracy of information from all sources, taking care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
Journalists should make certain that headlines, news teases, photos, etc. do not misrepresent the situation.
Both Nadine and Meirelles failed in the honesty test.

If the reader is to believe BusinessWeek’s interpretations, the work must start with accurate information and be honestly and professionally gathered. Since BusinessWeek specializes in valued-added, interpretive journalism, the interpretation must flow from the facts and be reasonable. Because of their interpretive character, they have license to go beyond a traditional, just-the-facts approach—at the same time, it puts an extra onus on them in terms of responsibility for accuracy, which lies with everyone touching the editorial product. We don’t make things up, and must gather and verify every piece of information presented.

Neither Nadine nor Meirelles reported the truth. It seems both intentionally presented inaccurate information, deliberate distortion, and misrepresentation, in spite of the fact that they are both considered professionals in their fields. Nadine failed to gather and verify her information, and Meirelles deliberately presented false information.

USE OF THE MEDIA FOR ADVOCACY
SPJ Journalists should distinguish between advocacy and news reporting, labeling analysis and commentary  and not misrepresenting fact or context. They should be obligated only to the public’s right to know, avoiding conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

BusinessWeek, always an independent voice, has no ax to grind. On all matters of politics, economics, and social policy, we try to bring our own judgment to bear, based on thorough reporting and reasonable analysis. We do not do stories that are designed to hew to any ideological agenda. Conflicts of interest, real or apparent, may arise in many areas, with tensions between the journalist’s professional obligations and their relationship with news sources, advocacy groups, etc.

The work of both Nadine and Meirelles is advocacy, hers for animal protection, his for Brazilian Indian protection. However, when their interest in advocacy became more important than the truth, both stepped over the line of reporting to false advocacy. Both misrepresented the fact and context. Even in doing interpretive pieces, this is not acceptable.

MEDIA SENSITIVITY
The Society of Professiona Journalists recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion

The BusinessWeek company does not practice surreptitious entry.

Erica’s name was publicized. Her privacy was invaded. Her compassion was misrepresented by the label of cat hoarder. The animal shelter’s newsletter gave no quarter to the fact that the animals were in no danger and were well-cared for. And Nadine surreptitiously entered Erica’s home when she was absent, capturing additional cats and removing them.

The Indian tribe did not authorize their publicity. In fact, it was counterproductive for a group which wanted to remain isolated. The use of an airplane flying over their village to photograph it is, in my opinion, surreptitious entry. What was the public need that justified this intrusion?

MINIMIZE HARM
Journalists must recognizing that gathering  and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort, and they must work to minimize harm. The pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance. according to the Society of Professional Journalists.. Sources and subjects must be treated as deserving of respect, and there should be compassion shown to those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.

Nadine caused harm. Persons who honestly care for animals became frustrated, cared for extra animals, then were zapped for their compassion. Cats were needlessly euthanized. And Erica’s story was repeated on the opposite end of the county where she lived, informing me that Nadine’s practices were not limited to harassing Erica. Ultimately, the animal shelter has lost donations due to the lack of integrity of its director.

The resultant harm of global publicity could be outsiders investigating or gawking at the Indians, invading their privacy and removing their (perhaps desired) isolation. This, along with the logging, may change their society in major ways.

Meirelles deliberately using inaccurate information for advocacy pounds another nail in the distrust coffin when people are already suspicious of media.

ACCOUNTABILITY
The Society of Professional Journalists states that journalists must be accountable, that they should admit mistakes and correct them promptly.

Fortunately, Meirelles ‘fessed up to his media manipulation rather quickly, accepting the responsibility for his actions. In spite of this, even because of this, his ploy to get information out on the danger of the Peruvian loggers to the Indians may be successful.

Nadine blithely continues on, seemingly ignorant of the fact that her actions are manipulative and harmful.

CONCLUSION
Writing of both Nadine and Meirelles do not reflect “journalistic” integrity from the mirror they are held up to. Granted, neither is a journalist. However, as professionals in their fields they need to build their own integrity. And this is not done by mishandling their position to write without integrity.

The guidelines of these publications hold valuable hints to those persons who compose publications, such as newsletters and brochures, for their organizations. The loss of integrity, such as happened to Nadine and Meirelles, certainly do not bolster advocacy groups such as animal shelters and Indian protecters.

Perhaps the boards of these types of organizations need to educate their members and staff on the ethics of journalism.

Even non-journalistic writers must adhere to integrity in their writing.

References used in this post:
http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-ethicscode,0,2492860.story
http://www.publicintegrity.org/Content.aspx?context=about&topic=ethics&id=705
http://www.bostonglobe.com/newsroom/News/ethics.stm
http://www.businessweek.com/ethics.htm
http://buzz.yahoo.com/buzzlog/91536
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jun/21/amazon?gusrc=rss&feed=networkfront 
http://www.hispnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=802:brazil-reveals-uncontacted-amazon-tribe-to-alert-world-to-threats&catid=377:060508&Itemid=76

For additional reading:

LOGGING IN MAINE AND ON THE PERU-BRAZILLIAN BORDER

A PASTOR’S ROLE IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE Part 2

FROM THE BASTILLE TO CINDERELLA

OF FIREFLIES AND LIGHTNING BUGS

HAIR UNAWARE

LET MIND GIVE WAY TO HEART

BEAR CONFRONTATIONS: SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

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5 Comments »

  1. I agree that the conduct in both cases involved serious breaches of professional ethics.

    I have considerable empathy for Erica. She was merely trying to care for stray cats, and should have every right to be able to do this without persecution from opportunists like Nadine.

    At times, I feel that the problem with some writers is not so much a matter of diligence in checking facts, but simply that they care little about factual information which runs contrary to agendas which they are trying to promote.

    Cheers

    Andrew

    Comment by Andrew — June 27, 2008 @ 11:42 am | Reply

  2. I think you make some excellent points. But I wanted to question one of your assumptions. How do you know these tribes don’t want contact? You wrote, “In fact, it was counterproductive for a group which wanted to remain isolated.” This may not be true. The same culprits are the ones who advanced the story that no contact is desired by these people.

    To me, the photos looked staged and beg further investigation. Think about it: For the group to do a fly over and just so happen to catch everyone dressed to the nines in war gear seems just too good to be true. We at http://www.stinkyjournalism.org are looking at this case now.

    Thank you for this article and your use of ethical guidelines as the lens for improving reportage.

    Comment by Rhonda R Shearer — June 27, 2008 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  3. […] INTEGRITY: A JOURNALISTIC CODE OF ETHICS REVIEW […]

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  5. Hey friend I like your blog!

    Comment by Carson — January 18, 2012 @ 9:05 pm | Reply


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