historic newspaper

Inspiring Newspaper Ethics

At the beginning of an op-ed shared by two of my Facebook friends, the L.A. Times included an editor’s note. The note stated the historical context relevant to the op-ed and that the subject of the op-ed “declined to comment prior to publication.” I read the piece about another alleged Hollywood perpetrator of sexual assault, but I was also struck by the editor’s note: why did the L.A. Times include it in an opinion piece?

As the daughter of a journalist, I read editorials and opinion columns (and comics and the arts and culture section) every Sunday at breakfast when I was in high school. I expected a biased presentation of data in the opinion section, and I relished thinking about how and why people approached an issue differently or similarly. Now, when I have time, I also read people’s comments on online articles. Whether or not I agree with a columnist or commenter, I like learning about people through how they write about what they think of a particular topic.

In this season, my news consumption is sporadic. A few times each week, I browse NPR headlines and follow shared links when multiple Facebook friends post the same article. When I suspect exaggeration or confusion, I check Snopes or do a Google news search to see if established news outlets concur. When an event makes the national news or is frequently mentioned in communities I am a part of, I pause once a week to try to get a thorough understanding of it. This usually entails reading three or four articles from a variety of news sources, making sure to not duplicate stories originating from the Associated Press or Reuters. I also seek the perspective of local and regional newspapers because their coverage is more in-depth through their more direct access to more people and places affected. If a story stays on my mind for several days, I may make a piano headline improvisation.

Besides the recent op-ed, I remember two instances when I read the L.A. Times this year. The array of photos and detail of illustrations stood out in the coverage of the fall 2017 fires in Northern California. As I sought more background on the Wendy’s boycott at my alma mater, I encountered an investigative report on maltreatment of tomato farmworkers in Mexico that explained the legal and economic ramifications of the farm and detailed the organizational infrastructure from laborer and contractor to owner and buyer in addition to including multiple anecdotes from people at the bottom of the hierarchy.

I was not surprised at the clarity and depth of this reporting, but seeking the reason for the editor’s note that balanced the op-ed led me to something impressive: the L.A. Times Ethics Guidelines. Curious about other papers, I also read comparable statements on the websites of The New York Times and The Washington Post. All three endeavor to be trustworthy to readers. They all seek fairness and avoid conflicts of interest. The papers from the East Coast begin their statements with references to men from their institutions’ pasts, but the one from the West coast one does not. The New York Times would require reading multiple documents to achieve the level of comprehensiveness on the single long-scrolling pages of the others’ websites. The ethics policy of The Washington Post begins with less formality of style and with more openness to revision than the others, but their commitment to presenting a diversity of voices is notable. Beyond the search for truth, correcting of errors, and preservation of reputability the three share, the way the L.A. Times describes these principles inspires me because it specifically calls upon the individual integrity and conscience of its journalists:

In deed and in appearance, journalists at The Times must keep themselves — and the newspaper — above reproach.

The ways a newspaper can discredit itself are beyond calculation; these guidelines do not purport to cover them all. It is up to staff members to master these general principles and, beyond that, to listen carefully to their individual sense of right and wrong.

L.A. Times Ethics Guidelines

May I, too, recognize the honor and the responsibility of sharing information and ideas with the public.

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