Media Mashup: November 2, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 6.10.29 PMEthics for Journalism: An Oxymoron?

Accuracy, transparency and professionalism. Those are my suggestions for journalism ethics to replace objectivity, fairness and balance.

Lyle Denniston, the dean of the U.S. Supreme Court press corps, added a fourth: humility. At 84 and still writing for, Denniston is an accomplished journalist and a  wise man! I had an opportunity to meet him recently.

The reason I have offered new tenets is that objectivity, fairness and balance have been defined in a variety of ways. Simply put, these terms have lost their meaning.

In order to regain public trust, news organizations need to engage in a discussion about what they do and how they do it.

Over the past year, I had the opportunity to study and review the ethical foundations of journalism. What I found is a wonderful set of guidelines, but there are few definitions of the terms the public and we tend to regard as sacrosanct in the marketplace of ideas.

I will expand on the discussion in future posts, but here are some working definitions for what I think are better ethical standards:

No. 1: Accuracy is the quality or state of being correct or precise.

As Phillip Graham of The Washington Post realized many years ago, a news organization cannot attain 100 percent accuracy because journalism is the rough first draft of history. Nevertheless, news organizations can admit errors and correct them quickly.

No. 2: Transparency is the characteristic of providing access to information particularly about business practices.

As applied to journalism, transparency needs to be addressed in a variety of ways.

–Journalists need to answer questions to acknowledge their biases. That information must be published by the news organization and must be easily available to the public.

–News organizations must provide the public access to the manner in which a story was reported, including primary documents.

–If complaints of bias occur against a journalist, the news organization must begin an outside evaluation of a sample of the content produced by the journalist, with the results of the inquiry easily available to the public.

No. 3: Professionalism is the skill, good judgment and polite behavior that are expected from a person to do a job well.

–Humility means a modest view of one’s importance. Lyle, thanks for this one!

He pointed to some of his former colleagues who lacked humility and had become the center–rather than the observer of a story. Watergate hero Bob Woodward and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd were at the top of his list.

I could add Thomas Friedman, Charles Blow and E.J. Dionne on my list. I am certain you could add more names.

Christopher Harper is a longtime journalist, who reported in Europe and the Middle East. He teaches media law and international journalism. Send suggestions and tips to


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