In Depth

In Search of Ethical Guidelines

Changing World Means Constant Adjustments

The spotlight on ethics in the TV newsroom has never been brighter.

“There’s pressure on our industry,” said Stacey Woelfel, news director at NBC affiliate KOMU-TV in Columbia, Mo., and associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “News managers are asked to do things they haven’t been asked to do before, and they want to know, should I raise objections or is there a safe path that meets the goals of my company?”

To answer those questions, Mr. Woelfel puts on his other hat, as chair of the RTNDA’s Ethics Committee. Founded as the Radio-Television News Directors Association in 1946 to set standards for newsgathering and reporting, the recently renamed Association of Electronic Journalists has had a code of ethics since the beginning.

In the late 1980s, the organization’s foundation began Tough Calls, an ethics program, and in 1999 it added workshops in which journalists face case studies involving ethical dilemmas to improve their decision-making abilities.

The changing media landscape has demanded updates in the RTNDA Code of Ethics; revisions have been made in 2000 and 2002, with another coverage guideline set to join the list this year.

“We watch the industry, what’s going on, and turn out coverage guidelines,” Mr. Woelfel said. “We don’t amend it very often, but we’ve probably averaged a couple a year while I’ve been on the committee.”

Some of the new ethical issues that face journalists include guidelines for user-generated content, covering terrorist attacks, Amber Alerts and digital manipulation of images and audio.

Mr. Woelfel described some of the more contemporary ethical challenges that journalists face.

“[These amendments] cover everything from attributing video news releases (VNRs) to bomb threats at schools,” he said.

The most recent guideline, Mr. Woelfel said, is one on conflict of interest, which is still in the process of being approved. This guideline was sparked by a series of recent events: MSNBC.com identifying 143 journalists who made political contributions from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa being romantically linked with a Telemundo reporter who covered City Hall; and a reporter at a Chicago NBC affiliate spending personal time with the family of a missing woman whose story she was covering.

VNRs are a hot-button topic in today’s contemporary news industry, said Mr. Woelfel.

“Business pressure is often the source of this,” he said. “News managers are asked to do something they haven’t been asked to do before. A lot of stations use VNR material to fill space. The news director wants to know, ‘Should I use it? Should I not? How do I let people know that I’m using it?’ A journalist can go to his superiors and say, ‘We can’t air this,’ and use the RTNDA Ethics Committee coverage guidelines to back him up. Some manager may not care, however, whether or not they follow RTNDA Ethics Committee guidelines.”

Therein lies the rub.

“Sometimes there is this subtle or not so subtle pressure to not say anything bad about certain pieces or go easy on them because they buy a lot of ad time,” said a health care journalist who requested anonymity. “That happens. I think after you discuss how you’re going to couch the piece, [management] is always worried it’ll be much worse than they think it’s going to be. You always try to be fair. Do I discuss it in terms of ethics? That word isn’t brought up. I say, ‘Here’s how I’m going to do the piece’ and outline the structure. There’s a deep breath and we go on.”

The biggest issue that is bringing journalists into conflict with TV station management is the deals some stations are making with local hospitals for exclusive sponsorship of a medical segment.

“The hospital provides a story with a ribbon wrapped around it,” said independent health care journalist Andrew Holtz, who writes the online Holtz Report. “If it’s hay fever season, they provide an immunology expert who can give tips on dealing with hay fever. They find the patient. They do all the work. All the station has to do is show up and tape it. A lot of it is just that the station is under pressure to crank out more stories with less investment and therefore falling prey to these easy stories,” he added.

Although the conflict-of-interest guidelines haven’t yet been published, some journalists believe the existing guidelines clearly rule out hospital sponsorship of health care news.

In 2002, the Code of Ethics integrated another update. “They established voluntary guidelines for balancing business pressures and journalism values,” said AHJC President Trudy Lieberman, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. “One RTNDA standard says advertisers should have no influence over news content. Yet in many of these TV partnerships, hospital PR people decide the story and may even write or edit the script.”

Ms. Lieberman, citing the guideline that a news operation’s online site must clearly separate commercial and editorial content, noted that one station in South Carolina featured one of its former reporters having her heart disease risk assessed by a local hospital.

“The story blended so smoothly on the site with the hospital’s ads, it was difficult to tell the difference,” she said.

Another health care journalist who declined to be identified reported that one of his station’s advertisers, a hospital, has a commercial in which it appears that a reporter is interviewing a doctor.

“I see it as distinct enough so that I know it’s not for real,” he said. “But perhaps someone not quite so discerning might think it is. That’s how they wrote their commercial and that’s what they paid for. Profit is such a big deal for stations, sometimes that’s a priority.”

If viewers believe the news content is for sale, the station loses credibility, critics say.

“I’ve urged AHCJ to take action with RTNDA,” said former CNN reporter Gary Schwitzer, director of the health journalism master’s program at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. “I have my students review the RTNDA Code of Ethics. The code is a very good document and addresses quite clearly this practice of hospital deals and says that it is not a good thing. If these things are to have any meaning at all, you have to adhere to them.”

RTNDA Ethics Committee chair Mr. Woelfel answered his fellow journalists’ criticisms with his own question.

“What do they propose we do?” he said. “We don’t have enforcement power when it comes to these issues. Our role is to educate and inform our members and their employers and inspire them to do it a better way.”

Mr. Woelfel mentioned Glen Mabie, the news director at WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wis., who resigned over the station’s plan to form an exclusive coverage deal with a local hospital.

“RTNDA is trying to draw attention to this, and we continue to focus on [this topic] in what I think is a constructive way. I know there are journalists who determine what they do based on the Code of Ethics,” Mr. Woelfel said. “But we can’t call for any sort of government law that prohibits this sort of sponsorship deal, because we fight against government regulation of any media.”