Spring 2004 Table of Contents.
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 New & Now.


Shifting Standards

Old Oceans

Adverse Acid

Cognitive Confusion

Suffer the Children

Imitation of Life

Ancient Ungulate

Shifting Standards

It's been a rough year for American print journalism: Reporters lying about datelines and sources, photographers altering images for greater impact, editors shamelessly touting books published by corporate partners or axing book reviews that didn't gush sufficiently over staff members' work. Where have you gone, Walter Williams?

Although not a popular topic in academic circles until the early 1980s, formal statements of journalism ethics are now of keen interest to students of journalism. Besides outlining acceptable behavior for reporters, ethical codes tell us a great deal about newsroom values and priorities, say Associate Professor Bonnie Brennen and Professor Lee Wilkins, two scholars from MU's School of Journalism. "When you look at the codes, you get insights into how the field of journalism has changed," Brennen says.

Brennen and Wilkins recently undertook an in-depth analysis of three ethical guidelines from different eras: the 1923 code from the American Society of Newspaper Editors; the 1934 code crafted by the American Newspaper Guild; and the 2003 ethics guideline used by America's greatest newspaper, The New York Times. Their findings didn't make headlines for the Old Gray Lady, but perhaps they should have.

Early codes, Brennen and Wilkins found, made a point of portraying journalism as a sacred trust, often describing journalists as public servants. The Times code, on the other hand, tends to be strictly business, with guidelines that focus chiefly on issues such as conflicts of commercial interest. And while all three codes discussed fairness, the earlier standards made a point of emphasizing broader ethical concerns. "I was a little bit taken aback by what's not mentioned in the [Times] ethics code, like accuracy, like privacy," Wilkins says. "The fact that you don't see those things is pretty stunning."

Stunning, that is, unless you're Brandi Lynch, sister of former Iraqi War POW Jessica, who told Times editors her family didn't think to complain about a wildly inaccurate description of their home because, "we just figured it was going to be a one time thing." Or if you are one of millions of Times readers terrified by Judith Miller's over-the-top and, as it turns out, mostly inaccurate descriptions of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability. Or if you happened to believe that the Times' Pulitzer-prize winning writer Rick Bragg actually did his own reporting.

Brennen and Wilkins are aware that their research, which will appear later this year in the journal Journalism Studies, comes at a time when the public's perception of the news media is trending downward. This decrease in public trust provides an important raison d'être for their work: "I think that because the public has a negative perception about the field of journalism, it's particularly relevant to look at the field's standards, procedures and practices, which encompass codes of ethics," Brennen says.

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