APME Offers Draft of Ethics Document of Newspapers

Associated Press Writer


MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—A newly proposed ‘‘declaration of ethics’‘ for newspapers says journalists have a responsibility to pursue diversity in hiring and reporting, and to explain controversial decisions such as naming a rape victim.

The draft document, released Thursday at the 59th annual convention of the Associated Press Managing Editors association, was written by an APME committee after a year of study and public comment.

The five-page declaration is based on what its authors called ‘‘core ethical values’‘—trustworthiness, fairness, respect, accountability, public service and diversity—and is meant to give editors a starting point from which to write ethics codes for their newspapers.

Deliberations ‘‘covered a wide range of concerns, from the legal to the mystical,’‘ APME Ethics Committee Chair David Hawpe, editor of The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal, wrote in an introduction to the declaration.

‘‘But they always returned to the real world of daily journalism and the need to build public confidence in our craft.’‘

Consultant Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina Del Rey, Calif., said the process yielded a bold statement that moves beyond what he called ‘‘platitudes’‘ contained in many newspaper ethics codes and in the current APME code, adopted in 1975.

The draft suggests standards where the current code has none. For instance, it encourages editors to hire and retain staffs that reflect the diverse age, gender, race and sexual orientation of their communities. It also encourages reporters to use diverse sources in reporting stories.

The proposal sets standards for accountability, including prominent and prompt correction of errors, and news judgments ‘‘influenced by compassion for individuals.’‘ Greater responsiveness includes involving readers in creating or revising existing ethics codes and explaining in print why controversial decisions, such as naming a rape victim, are sometimes made.

In a panel discussion of the draft, editors and others questioned the value of any written code of ethics. Richard Winfield, a prominent First Amendment lawyer in New York, argued that provisions for verifying facts and quotes could be used against newspapers in lawsuits.

‘‘I think it’s possible to embrace the idea of higher ethical standards in journalism without embracing this entire draft code,’‘ Winfield said.

Michael Waller, editor of The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, supported a written code, arguing that journalists must be accountable because they hold others to account.

‘‘Without these written standards, we’re relying solely on institutional memory,’‘ he said. ‘‘To do all this orally, to keep it vague and to believe (reporters) understand it and know how to do it, that’s unrealistic.’‘

The proposal’s provisions for ensuring accuracy call for ‘‘systematic verification of facts and quotations.’‘ Some reporters object to such requirements, citing deadline pressure and the possibility that a source might recant comments that were accurately recorded in the original interview.

But Josephson said taking more time may be the price of improved credibility. ‘‘It takes more time to get it right than to get it quick,’‘ he said an interview. ‘‘Journalists say, ‘I’m as accurate as I can be under the circumstances.’ But they create the circumstances.‘’

The document lays out guidelines for reporters’ outside involvement in political and social causes—a major issue in some newsrooms as staffers struggle to reconcile their profession’s historical demand for objectivity with strong feelings about such issues as abortion and gay rights.

The current code warns journalists against ‘‘involvement in such things as politics, community affairs, demonstrations, and social causes that could cause a conflict of interest, or the appearance of such conflict.’‘ The new document encourages community involvement as long as it doesn’t create ‘‘actual or apparent conflicts of interest or otherwise raise questions about the impartiality of news coverage.’‘

APME President Bob Ritter, editor of Gannett News Service, said he favors a liberal interpretation that allows reporters to be personally involved in issues they don’t write about.

‘‘Journalists have isolated themselves to some degree from their communities,’‘ he said. ‘‘Journalists can be more involved … and increase their understanding of their communities without sacrificing their integrity.’‘

As part of the study that produced the draft, APME held one-day public forums in Hartford, Conn.; Nashville, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Sacramento, Calif.

APME members—managing editors and other news executives of member newspapers of The Associated Press—will have a year to study the proposal, and are to vote on it at their 1994 convention in Philadelphia.

If it functions as planned, Hawpe said, the declaration will help journalists ‘‘hang onto virtue at a dead run’‘ while re-establishing credibility with readers.

‘‘A self-imposed set of ethical standards,’‘ Hawpe wrote, ‘‘can be a way to let the outside world impinge, hopefully, on our work.’‘