RTDNA seeks to provide journalists with ethical decision-making skills

NEW YORKThoughtful ethics code revisions seem to be a way of life lately. In one case, a key objective is to provide journalists with greater ethical decision-making skills. “Rule obedience should not be the highest priority,” Scott Libin, VP news and content, Radio Television Digital News Association, told Ethics News Updates.

RTDNA’s Code of Ethics was last updated in 2000. In a statement to the membership, executive director Mike Cavender stressed “how greatly our technology and our newsrooms have changed in 14 years! It’s time to review and reevaluate our standards to ensure they address all these changes.”

During the interview, Libin covered several areas that paralleled concerns ASBPE addressed during its comprehensive code review last year. For example:

  • “Grappling with social media coverage” is a major concern, Libin said, because it is now ubiquitous. Adequate guidance cannot be offered within the framework of a paragraph or two. Instead, RTDNA’s revised code will incorporate social media language in every section.
  • Native advertising also will be newly addressed. No matter what it’s called, sponsored content “is not entirely clear in what it covers.” In the past, the terminology simply meant that the advertiser paid to present its message within the framework of established programming. Today that’s old school. Instead, advertisers also want, among other things, a major say in sources to be included in the coverage run.
  • Editorial independence is not what it used to be. “Audience interest should take priority far above anything else,” Libin said. But adherence to this mantra is becoming scarce. Today’s ethics codes “must reach out to the corporate office as well as to journalists.”
  • Today’s work pace clearly has put a crimp in quality. “In the past when you had as many deadlines as you had news casts,” LIbin recalled, “perhaps that amounted to just two deadlines a day. But now it’s how soon you can turn in the story. There are deadlines all day long.”

Survey probes ethics awareness

In preparation for its ethics code revision, RTDNA’s ethics committee surveyed members’ use of existing guidelines. Among the survey questions:

  • “Before receiving this survey, how often had you read or consulted the RTDNA Code of Ethics?”
  • “If you had read or consulted the RTDNA Code of Ethics before receiving this survey, how helpful did you find it?”
  • “Please tell us what part or parts of the current Code you found most helpful?”
  • “Please tell us what, if anything, is missing from the current Code and should be added?”

“One notable finding was the number of survey recipients who weren’t aware that we had a Code of Ethics,” said LIbin. “We’d love it if more people would endorse our code.” He added that more members would benefit “if they spent more time at the front end” in terms of ethics awareness before a crisis arises. “The best ethics practitioners are those who work hard at it,” he said.

Since ethics chairs of other organizations had expressed concern about archive guidance, ENU raised the issue with Libin. One common question was whether a specific time limit is required dictating a point at which archived coverage be deleted.

This is a complicated issue, Libin said. Time cannot be the only thing that counts, he stressed. The severity of the offense must be considered. “Search is a must bigger consideration today,” he said. Suppose you write a story that someone was tried for an offense. Later on, the individual on trial may be found innocent, and a follow-up story is written to that effect. Some searchers who Google a person’s name “may read about the crime but miss the article noting that the individual was exonerated.”

Rather than consider a policy of when to erase archived material, Libin suggested that original articles should be updated. In this way, all details connected to a specific case can be found in one place.

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