Ethics Update: In The 21st Century, ‘Truth’ Retains Status As Key Ethics Guidepost For Journalists . . . Maybe?

By Howard Rauch

In the 20th Century, “truth” was a key guidepost emphasized in most journalism organization ethics codes. Back then, the usual accompanying tenets were independence, minimize harm and accountability. But the 21st Century has brought digital media challenges that require new thinking. And at last week’s excellent webinar sponsored by Poynter Institute, faculty media ethics authority Kelly McBride updated attendees on today’s preferred direction.

“Truth” remains the key imperative, McBride told what was billed as a record-breaking webinar in terms of attendance. The other new kids on the block are “transparency” and “community.” “Transparency” takes into account explaining how stories were developed and prompt acknowledgment of mistakes and errors. Such acknowledgment must be made “in a way that encourages people who consumed the faulty information to know the truth.”

As for “community,” adhering to this guidepost requires journalists to make an ongoing effort to understand the needs of the audience being served. Further, adherents should “create robust mechanisms” for readers to communicate with editors and with each other. Also … a clear need exists to “seek out and disseminate competing perspectives.”

The entire thinking on the above positions is set forth in an upcoming book — The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century — co-authored by McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.

Of course, while there is much that could be learned by any journalist reading the book, the key audience being served is newspaper publishers and editors. To an obvious extent, “truth” in coverage issues often vary widely from the day-to-day considerations faced by B2B journalists. In fact, we probably would have few qualms adhering to the principles of “transparency” and “community.” But unfortunately for some of us, “truth” may be another kettle of fish.

For instance, surely there still are cases where editors determined to provide top-quality reporting are burdened by publisher directives that controversy should be avoided at all costs. Or policies insisting that staffs should never cover any development that might offend an important advertiser segment. And how about the rule that you always offer positive post-show reports about trade shows that were a bust, even if negative criticism is warranted. Does any of that sound familiar to you? Perhaps you can provide other examples that impede ability to provide need-to-know coverage.

Those of you not shackled by policies resembling the above are most fortunate. And perhaps you are among the lucky ones to have top management take your side vs. a publisher intent on banning any content even remotely offensive to the advertiser faction.

In my current post as ASBPE’s ethics committee chairman, I have considered running an “Ethics Hero” recognition event. Objective: to recognize those members of B2B top management who are determined to support editorial staffs seeking to keep truth in coverage on the highest possible pedestal. Anybody interested in this prospect is invited to submit possible rules to be considered for selecting those leaders who truly belong in the “hero” category. Share your views through our contact form.

Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions Inc., a consultancy focusing on B2B magazines. Rauch is the 2002 recipient of ASBPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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