Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hering, Journalism, and Ethics (Which One Of These Does Not Belong?)

I know the Society for Professional Journalists is not a mandatory organization for journalists to join, but I thought I'd post an excerpt from their Code of Ethics to further illustrate why I tend to get annoyed with DH Editor-in-Chief Hasso Hering. (See this post for a specific reason.)

This is too easy - from the first sentence of the frackin' preamble...

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists 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.

Got that? Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.

Advocating the destruction of records runs directly counter to public enlightenment, I would think. Not to mention "providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues."

Next (heck, the section is even called "Seek Truth and Report It"):

— Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.

Nope. Can't say advocating the destruction of public records and "that government records are open to inspection" are anything alike. In fact, they seem run directly counter to each other.

Moving on (from the section entitled "Act Independently"):

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

I don't really know what interests Hering was advocating for when he approved of the destruction of the records, but it certainly wasn't "the public's right to know." (Shades of Civic Journalism!)

Finally, we get to the one section that I think might have provided Hering with his best argument, had he chosen to make one.

From "Minimize Harm":

Journalists should:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— 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 into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

This is where Hering could have made an argument for keeping the records under strict lock and key, since their public release will undoubtedly cause harm to the detainees in the videos (not to mention the CIA and military folks who carried out the alleged acts of torture).

But he didn't. He didn't really make an argument at all, actually; he just sort of asserted the claim, almost like he expected us to believe him because he's Teh Editor, didn't you know?

Certainly Hering wasn't about to make an argument defending the rights and humanity of the victims of torture at the hands of the U.S.

Worse, as it stands, the people who were tortured at the hands of U.S. officials just lost a compelling piece of evidence that would allow them better access to justice - and Hering supported that.

Anyway - the point here is that Hering's editorials show an amazing lack of concern and respect for a sensible code of ethics for journalists.

One can make the argument that an editorial is not the same as a news story, and strictly speaking, that's true. But it doesn't excuse his behavior, especially since the SPJ's Code of Ethics speaks of the actions of a journalist, not the medium they are working in.

I ask again: Can Hering be the editor of a daily newspaper? Of course - he is undoubtedly qualified and has years of experience.

Should he be?



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