Journalism Ethics are Good For Government Communications. Here’s Why.


Let’s get this story straight, right at the beginning. Journalism and journalists — mainstream journalists especially — care deeply about ethics.

Second, let’s sympathize with them. Journalism operates in a fast-paced, ambiguous, highly competitive environment, an ideal setup for ignoring the long-term benefit of ethical behavior in favor of a short-term gain. And because the First Amendment licenses every one of us to be a journalist, there’s no way to enforce a code of ethics.

Still, it’s helpful for those of us in government communications employees to understand journalism’s ethics. This week’s blog is an attempt to summarize those ethics. Next week, we’ll discuss how understanding journalism ethics, combined with a dash of respect, can help us work with the press and handle situations when there’s conflict.

The gold standard is the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. SPJ takes ethics seriously — I was honored to serve on the SPJ’s Minnesota board for a time during my newspaper career, and our meetings regularly included discussions on ethics.

Do you want a taste of those debates? Check out SPJ’s ethics page.

Nothing is more important to journalism than the mission of being accurate, fair and thorough. It’s just that there’s a thicket of challenges and conflicts inherent in those goals.

Accurate? Try writing down someone’s direct quote someday, and compare it to a tape recording. It’s a difficult task. Three people will give three different descriptions of an event or practically any factual scenario. Whom do you quote?

Fair? Getting “both sides” of a story isn’t enough, because there are far more than two sides to every story. And what if the reporter has good, solid information that one side isn’t being accurate?

Thorough? A fellow reporter put it best. The problem with reporting, he said, is that you’re never done. There’s always one more call that could have been made, one more document to round up, one more door to knock on.

Happily, the government communications field shares the goals of fairness, accuracy and thoroughness with journalists. A thorough, fair story with all the facts correct is a benefit to a well-crafted public policy.

Sometimes, however, conflicts arise when journalists take another of their ethical edicts seriously: “Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government.”

That’s us. A good reporter takes this role seriously. That’s where the tough questions, the records requests, the skeptical tone that accompanies questions come from. That’s when a reporter asks for proof, not just a quote.

As we reporters used to say, only half-jokingly, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

How do you help a reporter pay heed to these ethical standards, or commandments? Luckily, we have a hand up on a lot of the other voices in stories. We have reams and reams of information we’ve already generated on whatever topic a reporter is asking about. Properly presented, in an open manner, that information backs up what we’re saying, and (figuratively at least) proves that our mothers love us.

I once was a reporter, and a pretty gung-ho one at that. Now, part of my job is answering their questions. Here are some lessons from my reporting days that I keep in mind when I’m doing my job as a government communicator.

First, don’t expect deference. It’s not a journalist’s job to defer to the government. Instead, be happy to provide proof of what you’re saying, and be ready to help the reporter understand all sides of the issue.

Second, you can expect fairness. Just don’t mistake toughness with bias. It’s a reporter’s job to be tough and ask hard questions, but you can expect your side of the story to be reasonably represented in the media.

Finally, it won’t always work. A story might be unfair, it might be inaccurate, important context may be missing. Before you call to complain, think about journalistic ethics. Framing your complaint in terms of the goals of ethical journalism will help you start to fix the situation.

Craig Lincoln is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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