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Journalistic Ethics Explored at US Symposium - 2004-04-08

The 2004 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced April 5. For print journalists the awards represent the highest achievement in their craft and the announcement is usually an occasion for celebration. But this year, following two major newspaper scandals involving Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, accused of fabricating stories- the celebratory mood may be tempered. And in a case of "art imitating life," the recent, acclaimed movie, Shattered Glass and even this week's episode of the CBS-TV series CSI: Miami center on journalism ethics.

Recently, the American University in Washington, D.C. and the American Film Institute sponsored the Reel Journalism Film Festival to explore journalism ethics and other media issues.

Last year's acclaimed film Shattered Glass is a fictionalized account of the downfall of writer Stephen Glass, formerly of The New Republic magazine. The movie depicts how Mr. Glass used charm to fool editors into publishing 27 partially or completely fabricated stories in The New Republic, one of America's most prestigious magazines.

After watching the movie, audience members and guest journalists at the American University forum discussed the film's message.

Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer of CBS television's news program, 48 Hours, told VOA that the recent string of highly-publicized media deceptions may not be a new phenomena.

"The ethics crisis that journalism finds itself in is one that may have happened many years ago," she said. "[But] people just didn't know about it. I think we're under a lot of scrutiny because it's easier now to figure out when something isn't accurate. When Jayson Blair wrote about [Iraq War veteran] Jessica Lynch in West Virginia and someone realized that the scene he described in the holler [community] where she lived wasn't real, people started to ask questions. People are a lot more cognitive about different stories, so it's easier to get caught. What's happening now may have already happened 20 years ago, but we just didn't know it."

Indeed, Ms. Zirinsky's legendary exploits as a CBS producer formed the basis of the 1987 movie Broadcast News, in which her character, played by actress Holly Hunter, discovers a faked TV news report created by a news anchor. In real life, Ms. Zirinsky once recalled looking at some old videotapes of war coverage, with some suspicious footage, suggesting the "staging" of a scene.

"I've had my tapes come out of the archives and I've looked at some of these tapes," said Susan Zirinsky. "Somebody jumps into a foxhole once and then jumps into the foxhole again. I'm thinking, 'Yeah, great.' It's 20-year-old tape. There's nothing you can do." For veteran newspaperman Wendell Cochran, who now teaches journalism ethics at American University, the revelation that award-winning USA Today foreign correspondent Jack Kelley allegedly fabricated stories for more than a decade was particularly disturbing.

"I know Jack Kelley; I edited [him] during the first Gulf War," he said. "I'm sure I edited a few of his stories. So that particular incident has hit home with me personally more than it has others."

Although the misdeeds of Kelley, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and others have drawn widespread coverage, Professor Cochran says he doesn't use these cases in his classes.

"Personally, the Shattered Glass movie and the Jayson Blair book - I'm not certain that giving those people additional prominence is necessarily a good thing," he said.

In addition to teaching ethics to aspiring journalists in college classrooms, Susan Zirinsky says veteran reporters should practice ethical journalism on the job.

"I've had a lot of new conversations with people in my shop about ethics and standards," said Susan Zirinsky. "Staging is so easy to do. I have old cameramen who - when there's a new kid on the block - call me and say, 'You've got to talk to these kids.' I tell them that part of it is also you in the field saying, 'We can't do that. That's just not acceptable.'

At 60 Minutes, there's someone whose job it is to read the full transcript of every interview. She reads the scripts and goes to the screenings. I don't have that at '48 Hours.' But I'm involved enough in the process that I know what's in the transcript. When we do something, there's a senior producer attached, and I'm hearing it verbally what they went out to shoot and what came back and how it will form. Then I screen it and there's an executive screening, which is [for] the executive for prime time. Then there are the lawyers.

So we don't go with things that don't have source-ing or [when we don't know] 'how did you get that?' We don't do an undercover shoot that doesn't have an executive's approval. I have to take it to a vice president. We have a stringent check-and-balance routine."

Several newspapers have hired so-called ombudsmen, or in-house critics. In the Jayson Blair plagiarism case, which led to last year's resignations of the two top editors of the New York Times, the newspaper started a "Public Editor" column, which airs readers' concerns about news coverage. American University Professor Wendell Cochran says such readers' representatives may have limited value.

"I'm not sure if the ombusdsman does [make a difference] because they're seen as separate from the news operation," he said. "They don't get to be in the room when the major decisions are being made. I believe we need some mechanisms for involving the public in some of our decision making process. Exactly how that will work without giving up some of the independence we cherish ? If I were an editor of a newspaper today, I would create a community board of advisors."

Commercial broadcast journalists which depend on viewership ratings to measure success- face a special ethical challenge. CBS producer Zirinsky says broadcasters may be tempted to sensationalize stories to attract higher ratings.

"I think television news magazines [are] unlike hard news broadcasts, morning shows, and print," she said. "Circulation is very important, and an editor may be fired over it, but they're not going to cancel a newspaper. In primetime [TV] and in the magazine world, that's the most frightening thing. How do you walk that line? You want people to watch, you want to be ethically sound, but you know if you don't get an audience, eventually you won't be able to survive.

60 Minutes exists in a time and space that's unique in the world," she said. "[Reporter] Lesley Stahl just did a powerful interview with [former Bush official] Richard Clarke on Sunday, and it exploded all over Washington and the world. But they also do [stories] on tea dancing in Finland which [reporter] Morley Safer did once - and have an equal rating. [But] with us, there are often [stories] I turn down, even if they're viable journalistically but I don't think people will watch it. So I deal with the devil every morning of my life." Ultimately, Ms. Zirinsky says it's up to all journalists and editors to take extra care in making sure that no ethical breaches occur.

"With each case that comes up, each one of us looks at each other and to ourselves and says, 'Be careful. Be smart,'" she said.