Ethics and American Journalism



Hubert Humphrey Fellows 2010-2011 photographed in the lobby of ASU Downton School of Journalism and Mass communication.
Photo by Humphrey Fellow Javed Afridi of Pakistan.

Tim McGuire teaches courses on ethics, emerging media, corporate responsibilities and future of the media at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Since 2007, McGuire writes on the media and ethical decisions via his blog McGuire on media. He believes that journalists should be proper to support credibility among the audience.

“The audience has to trust that the news is true and fair, and that we don’t harm people when we gather that news and that is the independent of government, of business and accountable to the public. All those things are why the ethics are important,” says McGuire.

And not only the experienced journalist and professors like Tim McGuire pay attention to importance of ethics in the dynamic and everyday changing environment. The academia is also looking for the best possible way to define and explain the necessity of applying the code of ethics in journalism.

According to Gene Forman, the author of the book The ethical Journalist, the ethics in valuable because has a moral and practical incentive. “Journalist should be ethical because, they, like most other human beings, want to see themselves as decent and honest,” explains Forman. He underlines in his book that in the long-term, responsible and by ethics guided, journalism ensures news organization credibility and trust among the public.

In today’s hyper fast media environment the basic ethics guidelines connect the history and the present time of journalism existence. Speaking with the language of technology, “the Ethical Journalist is like GPS for sound decision-making,” says Jim Naughton, from the Poynter Institute that primarily focuses its activities on ethics in media.

Experienced associations of a journalist embrace the importance of ethics to build integrity and credibility. American Society of Professional Journalist code of ethics is based on dedication to ethical behavior by implementing four basic elements as a cornerstone of every principled decision.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics considers four elements of moral behavior. Those are: seek truth and report it, reduce harm, act independently, and be accountable.

McGuire believes in those values and thinks American journalism has been ethical, and the challenge is how to preserve those standards beside the fact always rule violator.

“By keeping the appearance to be independent, not doing anything that appears like conflict of interest in this 24/7 fast path that you pick the news keeping people committed to true telling, committed to minimizing harm is very difficult because the story is comingRepeated Word quickly and there is much demanding to get them out there and that is the real challenge,” emphasized McGuire.

McGuire recalls on times in 50s and 60s when he started his career as sports director, and he could not pass the information on the sports events in the local newspaper because they do not pay to the sports editors.

“Those kinds of the things were common in the 50s and 60s and most of that was eradicated,” explains McGuire. The broader implementation of ethics code in the individual newspapers starts at the end of seventies. Gene Forman notifies in his book The ethical journalist that it was “not until the late 1970s that the practice of adopting ethics codes by each newspaper became common.”

Despite the fact of the adoption of ethics codes, the challenges for the media, no matter they are new or old one still exist.

                                                         THE CHALLENGES OF PRESENT DAYS

The most-recent ethical case involves National Public Radio, founding of this national radio network through donations, and anIncomplete sentence secretly recorded business meeting with two fake representatives of a Muslim organization who wanted to donate $5 million to NPR.

The meeting was set up by the conservative activist James O’Keefe and caught one of the NPR officials, chief fundraiser Ron Schiller, speaking on shameful accusation. The video was published to the web and after one day, the station fired Ron Schiller and the CEO of NPR, Vivian Schiller.

The reputation of the station was hurt due to the action against the manager who had no direct contact with news and journalist. Regardless to that, the reputation of the National Public Radio is under the question among the public after this video incident.

Another case happened last year and involves Keith Olbermann, a former author of the MSNBC broadcast program Countdown and the contribution of $2.400 he gave to three candidates of the Democratic Party.

“I think. The only issue in the Olbermann case is he a journalist or is he an entertainer, but he clearly violated NBC’s rules about giving to the political campaigns and the reasons why they are doing that is to maintained their independence. He violated those rules,” explains McGuire.

In the CBS News Web page article Keith Olbermann Donations to Democrats May Have Violated NBC Ethics Policy posted by Brian Montopoll, he explains the rules of NBC towards connection between journalist and politicians. 

“NBC’s ethics policy generally “bar’s political activity, including contributions, without the approval from the president of NBC News, Steve Capus, according to a 2007 story on,” explains Montopoll in the above-mentioned web article.

McGuire speaks on variety of ways to lose your independence like to give a large amount of money or to date, your source of information. The cornerstone for journalists should be not to sacrifice their independence.

“I think that it is independence, that no relationship should make you dependent on another person if you get the money from another source, from a source, are you autonomous. If you have a personal relationship are you independent. Maintaining independence is the crucial aspects of any relationship’, answers McGuire.

                                                     ARIZONA REPUBLIC FIESTA BOWL INVESTIGATION

The role of fact-finding reporting is to discover wrongdoing and to serve as a watchdog for the society. “Journalists, especially through investigative reporting have increasingly functioned as what a scholarly book has called “custodians of conscience”-they have used their platform to expose wrongdoing and to illuminate solutions to public ills,” explains the author about the book The ethical journalist.

We can illustrate such importance with the investigator reporting on Arizona Fiesta Bowl. Last week, Arizona’s state leading newspaper Arizona Republic published an investigative story of the acceptance of unattached college football tickets by official representatives and State Capitol representatives, involving even the creator of the SB1070 law, Representative Russell Pearce.

A Walter Cronkite School of Journalism Professor Tim McGuire acknowledges importance of Arizona Republic’s fact-finding effort. Into the case to discover receiving of free tickets for Fiesta Bowl by the state representatives on his blog dedicated to media issues.

He explains with the course grades “Republic reporters deserve A+. The editorial board gets solid B, but the publisher of the Republic John Zidich gets an F for an outrageous conflict of interest because he is on the executive committee board of the Fiesta Bowl.

McGuire writes that Zidich’s involvement is a “profound embarrassment and his attempt at transparency on Wednesday’s paper is incredibly weak.” He quotes Zidich’s explanation published in the Arizona Republic newspaper.

“When I decided to go on the executive committee in 2010, I did it for one reason. That was to make sure that what we were hearing about in the community, and on the pages of our newspaper, about possible problems, was dealt with completeness and transparency.

“I realize in my position that there could be an appearance of conflict between coverage and my involvement, but quite frankly, this bowl means too much to the community. (I wanted to) Make sure that whatever its future is, is a bright one. The only way to do that is to be involved.”

Then, McGuire admits he can find direct evidence “that Zidich’s involvement affected the Republic story. On its face, the coverage seems very aggressive, but Zidich’s involvement has to make the public wonder if they are getting a sanitized version. And that doesn’t even mention the way the staff has to be looking over its shoulder.” McGuire suggestion is that John Zidich “should quit the Executive Committee of the Fiesta Bowl or quit The Republic.”

However, he acknowledges the importance to this investigation for corruption for his future ethics class. “from this day forwards, now on, when I teach my ethics students who people with a power lie to reporters and do it repeatedly, this Fiesta Bowl case will be my case study,” says McGuire.


Media wars over the circulation and the position on the market sometimes creates an environment for spinning and fabrication of stories even though this is against all ethical codes. However, at the end of 19th century “fine Overused expression line between fantasy and fact blurred in the pursuit of material gain,” writes David R. Spencer in its book The Yellow Journalism. According to him this is evident in “the New York press wars that broke out the end of 19th century and the journalistic practice in the coverage of the Spanish-American war.

“I think, truth-telling a lot of people made stuff up in the early part of the century. I think that disputably the Spanish-American war was made up, debatably it even didn’t exist, and arguably. It did it because of circulation. I think that the fiction was one of the biggest problems, sensation was one of the largest problems, and independence was a huge problem because a lot of the reporters were on the take,” explains McGuire.

 Spencer comments in its book that “New York and gifted storytellers have often been blamed for creating the fervor that surrounded the decision by President McKinley to intervene in yet one more uprising on the island of Cuba against colonial masters based in Spain.”

The events at the end of the 19th century and the blame for triggering the Spanish-American war could be on two leading publishers at that time. Spencer’s book on Yellow journalism explains, William Randolph Heart’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s World New York played “fast and loose with the truth to garner larger circulation.” The stories on young women Clemencia Arayno, on the Cuban-American dentist Ricardo Ruiz and on the worship Maine published in the New York press created an atmosphere and drive to American intervention in Cuba against Spain.

For example, the headline of Heart’s New York Journal on Ruiz “American slain in Spanish Jail” was “opening salvo in a series of articles in which Hearst claimed that Secretary of State John Sherman advocated war with the Spain,” writes Spencer in his book.

Heart’s New York Journal published the fictional interviews with other state officials. And the final “stretch of imagination was claimed that Ruiz spoke to Journal reporters,” reveals Spencer. The story created heated atmosphere throughout the country, and many of the national newspapers used the word “murder” without any concrete proof of that.

Finally, the explosions on worship Maine’s story eventually heated the atmosphere and lead towards war. On February 15, the Maine blew up and sank, taking lives of two officers and 264 sailors. “The nation was horrified and war becomes inevitable,” notes Spencer. He describes that Hearst and Pulitzer “were well aware they could benefit from the problems caused by the explosion.”

Hearst offered $50.000 reward for people who can provide information on those responsible for the explosion. To stay for the race for circulation, Pulitzer sent a crew of divers to Havana to inspect the wreck and draw conclusions, explains Spencer in Yellow Journalism.

Spencer offers information that “both newspapers published a cablegram allegedly sent by the captain of the warship to the secretary to the navy, Theodore Roosevelt, concurred with captain conclusions.” “There was one problem,” considers Spencer, “the communication was a fabrication.”

The reward offers continued even the war was declared in Hearst’s newspaper. He offered $1.000 to any reader “who could provide great ideas for conductivity the war.”

However, in spite of the popular myth, writes Spencer, “that William Randolph Hearst provides a war for the Journal to exploit, it remains clear to most observers who one newspaper or New York press editor could hardly have mustered up support for a war if the underpinnings of that support–did not exist in the first place.”

                                                      NOW OR THEN – STANDARDS ALWAYS APPLY

I am convinced a right decision, and codes are of huge importance for decision-making in everyday journalist life. Gene Forman in The Ethical journalist emphasizes the “First Amendment guarantee of a free press means that unlike other professionals, such as those in medicine and the law, journalists are not regulated by the state and are not subject to an enforceable ethics code’. 

“However, in spite of the exponential improvement in journalism’s standards, there continue to be lapses. In times of intense competition, journalists too often discard their ethical principles,” explains Forman. It is important that media ethics must emerge from those in the profession and not to be imposed from outside sources. The media ethics should be created by media professionals, publishers and from those who sell the advertising to make the business profitable.

“Developing moral standards is a personal exercise in part and a collective one too. However, effective and meaningful ethical standards can never be imposed from an external source—they must be an outgrowth of those who practice them everyday,” stated Washington D.C. based International center for journalism it their manual on Journalism Ethics.

                                                         IT IS ON JOURNALISTS TO APPLY ETHICAL CODES   

“You should constantly be telling truth, you should always be minimizing the harm. You should regularly be acting independently, and you should invariably be accountable, no matter the medium. I don’t think there is a distinct standard for on-line, print or different standards for the video on-line. I think if you are a journalist you have to subscribe to those basic standards,” concludes ASU Professor Tim McGuire.


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