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Deception comes in many shades. There is no black and white when it comes to deception. It is easy for journalists and others to immediately rush to label all of their actions in the field as ethical and truthful; however, in this short discourse I wish to examine lying in journalism, the disconnection of religious ethics from modern day journalism,deception as a means to get to the story and the Jayson Blair case. I also plan to highlight the lack of a system of checks and balances for journalists, as some other professions, like law, medicine and academe have. This lack of checks and balances is what hinders ethical action in times of deceptive ways of retrieving information from a source. I will use the potter box method in analyzing the values and principles most journalists would employ, as well as how those principles compare to the actions of Jayson Blair.
In the earlier years of media, religious ideologies helped develop ethics. In the 19th and 20th centuries we find a disassociation with religion and stronger leaning to enlightenment. Civil religion has largely “set laws, regulations and guidelines for personal ethical behavior that are rooted in religious tradition but no longer have the explicit theological hold over society that they once did.” (Bella) American journalism is often touted as a product of the Enlightenment period.
Due to the removal of religion from the career and governmental specters of society, journalists have been left to their own devices, to retrieve information for the masses, often unconsciously following John Stuart Mills’ utilitarianism philosophy and Nietzsche’s Morally Superior Overman concept that a certain individual of social status has a right to use various methods of truth gathering, these methods might also include small white lies, intimidation and harassment. In this sense, we can say that Machiavelli’s philosophy of success counting above all else plays a silent role, whether or not journalists are aware. A story is not made until it has reached a successful conclusion that glorifies the byline of the article.
In my opinion, I find Kantian ethics of the Categorical Imperative, that state “I should only do what I believe should be a binding principle for all,” as important in gathering information. Lying seems to be an obvious activity journalists should not engage in, but lying does not simply manifest itself viciously.
According to Patterson and Wilkinson in the second chapter of Media Ethics (“A Profession Seeks the Truth”), “Journalists think about deception on a continuum. At one end, there is always such a rejection of lying to readers, viewers and listeners,” and the total fabrication of an article, however, this does not include flattering a source, lies of omission –such as “withholding of information from readers and viewers and also editors and bosses,” “lying in a crisis to prevent panic” or national security issues, or even failing to identity yourself as a reporter can be troublesome.
The struggle of understanding what is accurate portrayal of truth and deception is strained in broadcast journalism, which many did not reject the usage of “hidden cameras and altering video.” The more the “competitive” the media environment, the more deception was commonplace according to their research. (33)
There has also been some question regarding “lying to liars” or using intimidating tactics against sources that are involved in criminal activity or have troubled pasts and have already lied in some capacity. Patterson and Wilkinson cite Sissela Bok’s theories of whether or not the lying will be of benefit to the greater good and protecting the society, perhaps even aiding in the stability of society. This concept is found in Confucianism. Bok’s research suggests that indeed the concept of the Overman plays a central role in lying, even if to a liar or criminal. According to her work, we become beneficiaries of lying minus the risk of being lied to or even receiving punishment. “In other words, some journalists may believe it is acceptable to lie to a crook to get a story, but they professionally resent being lied to by any source, regardless of motive.” (34)
According to Mark Allen Peterson in Getting to the Story: Unwriteable Discourse and Interpretive Practice in American Journalism, journalists are not as aloof to these dilemmas as one might think.
“In the stories they tell, reporters attempt to speak as direct observers about matters about empirical fact and are squelched by editors, who as gatekeepers of journalistic objectivity, are quick to suppress such behavior. Unexamined by journalism is the possibility that the object world perhaps cannot be neutrally represented or that journalism is a particular form of knowledge whose truthfulness lays not so much in its reference to the object-world as in the mode of the production which engenders it.” (209) From Peterson’s thesis we can infer that to Peterson objectivity and truth are actually subjective and perhaps even elusive. He cites Bourdieu as saying that a “practical logic understands only in order to act.”
A specific ethical dilemma that involved the usage of lies to fabricate articles in the New York Times is that of Jayson Blair. Blair had outright lied in over 40 articles about times, dates, people, quotes and locations in his reporting for the Times. The credibility crisis the Times faced with Blair allowed many to be privy to the creative writing methods that not only Blair but others had been engaging in. Some blamed the Times for hiring and keeping Blair on staff long enough for him to fabricate so much information, others put the blame on Blair, which Blair refuted as incorrect because of his psychological problems and that the Times had hired him because he is a Black American, as a part of a diversity outreach to increase the amount of diverse writers at the paper. The Times later learned that he had never completed his college coursework and although fast, was often inaccurate. The Times decided to publish a full page ad describing in detail all of the falsehoods found in Blair’s writings shortly after Blair resigned in 2003.
Along with Blair, the Times had to confront that Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Rick Bragg was publishing stories written by stringers who never got a byline. After Braggs rewrites became public, he hastily resigned. Other writers have also had a similar fate, such as Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass both the The New Republic. (American Journalism Review)
The universal values and principles of honesty, integrity, pursuit of excellence, accountability, truth-telling, accuracy and responsible citizenship are imperative in the gathering of facts and information for the masses. The loyalty to the readership in presenting them with honest information about world events and to make smart decisions trumps all else. In my opinion, deception, small lies to prevent panic and even withholding of information can serve as an injustice.
The complete fabrication of details for a story are implausible, I believe the Times should have been more cautious of who it gave a notepad and pencil to. As Jack Shafer writes in Slate Magazine.com, “When an editor gives somebody a notebook and pencil and tells him to go out and report, it’s a little bit like giving somebody you barely know a loaded gun.”
Shafer adds that most reporters don’t tend to “make things up” because, “1) they’re as ethical as Jesus Christ or 2) they know they’ll get caught.”