Journalistic Ethics

“In the English language, it all comes down to this: Twenty-six letters, when combined correctly, can create magic. Twenty -six letters form the foundation of a free, informed society.” -John Grogan

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is the current guide for journalists to use when making judgment calls on their reporting. There are four main concepts that are addressed by the code, those being:

-Seek truth and report it

-Minimize harm

-Act independently

-Be accountable

For the current, full version of the code, click here.

In All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are forced to make several ethical decisions because of the nature of the story they were investigating and reporting. While the present version of the SPJ Code of Ethics was accepted as recently as 1996, the principles in the code were in place back in Woodward and Bernstein’s day. We decided to use the film’s depiction of these two reporters and analyze how their tactics lined up with the current SPJ Code of Ethics.

Seek Truth and Report it

Both Woodward and Bernstein appear to have no issues with seeking the truth. The code says to be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” Woodward shows a desire to be honest and fair in his gathering of information but the courageous aspect is exemplified best by Bernstein. Bernstein is extremely persistent with sources, even and perhaps especially when those sources are being difficult or not willing to cooperate.

“Journalists should: ….— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing….”

Woodward and Bernstein made calls to officials as allegations were brought against them. While many of these calls were unanswered or the officials declined to comment, both journalists gave the opportunity to comment and respond to the officials.

“….— Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”

This was a touchy subject for Woodward and Bernstein. Because of the nature of their reporting, many sources wished to remain anonymous. When reporting a story of this magnitude, trustworthy sources are imperative. Woodward and Bernstein both used creative tactics to help their sources feel comfortable in allowing their names to be used.

Minimize Harm

The stories being published were about a government scandal. While at the beginning neither Woodward nor Bernstein knew the impact their reports would eventually have, each made decisions that would impact lives of people involved.

The concept of minimizing harm can somewhat contradict the notion of acting independently which we will discuss later. Those in public office are held responsible for their actions and those actions, when reported, may have a negative impact on their personal lives, including their families.

“Journalists should: …. — Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”

View video clip #8 on DVD

In this clip, Woodward and Bernstein receive a confirmation of information for their story. Sally has had social interactions with Ken Clawson in which Clawson admitted to writing a letter. Clawson denied writing the letter elsewhere. At the end of the clip, Woodward and Bernstein overhear the conversation between Sally and Clawson and Clawson says, “If that appears in the papers that I’m over at your house having drinks, do you know what that does?…. I have a wife and a family and a dog and a cat.”

Woodward and Bernstein recognize that Clawson’s family may be harmed or at least affected by this event. However, he is a public official and therefor needs to be held accountable.

Act Independently

Probably the most important part of this section of the code can be summed up in one sentence:

“Journalists should: —Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”

Woodward and Bernstein were unattached to the story. They used no sources with which they had personal relationships. A story where public officials are accused things such as Watergate is cause for special concern with this area of the code. Bernstein and Woodward both needed to be sure they were not allowing their personal political viewpoints drive the story.

“— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

The journalists were both vigilant and courageous about this point. Those involved were accountable. Those involved in the scandal also happened to be public officials and therefor very powerful men and women.

Be Accountable

“Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.”

Woodward and Bernstein were continually checking each other’s work. They would cross-check sources and information with one another before printing anything. Had either of them made a mistake, both seemed as though they would take the blame for the article.

View video clip #2 on DVD

This clip shows one scenario when Bernstein takes Woodward’s work to edit and improve it.

Overall, both Woodward and Bernstein accurately followed the SPJ Code of Ethics as it stands today. Of course every situation and even every interview is unique and must be evaluated ethically. Whether sports reporting, covering the local parade, or uncovering the Watergate scandal, journalists must make judgment calls on ethics. Some are right. Some are wrong. Some are in such a gray area that one must decide for themselves what the correct course of action may be.