My Journalism Panties

“I consider my ethics to be my journalism underpants.”

It’s the opening line from an informative column of sorts written by Bob Williams, former reporter for The Raleigh News & Observer.

Needless to say, it got my attention. The great thing is that the rest of the column is just as interesting.

I use it as a handout in my News Writing and Reporting class, but I also wanted to share it with you. I’ve included it below and attached it as a Word document.

Hopefully you get something out of it.

Here’s hoping your journalism underpants aren’t a thong!

I consider my ethics to be my journalistic underpants.

I put them on every day and I feel very uncomfortable without them. They need to fit me well and move as I do. If they are too tight they will bind and chafe. If they are too loose they will droop down, either tripping me up or exposing my ass.

Like most men, I hate to throw away my underpants – even when they become old and a bit frayed around the edges. It takes a long time to break them in properly.

And my ethics, like my underpants, are very personal. I can wear the same style, color or size as someone else, but it is a bad idea to actually wear their underpants. I need to examine my underwear every day and make sure it is clean and relatively free of holes.

I know I could probably show up for work without my underpants for years and most people would never notice. But then again, you never know when you might be in an accident.

All of this is not to say that ethics are simple. Good journalistic ethics are complex and require constant care. They are definitely not something you should let your mother pick out for you.

Ethics form the foundation on which is built the basic social contract that has to exist between the credible journalist and the public he or she serves. The stronger that foundation, the stronger the ties between writer and reader. But that strong foundation is rarely obvious to the reader, or for that matter the writer. Ethics almost always remain in the background, usually only becoming evident when there is a problem.

So what are the values that comprise and hold together our journalistic underpants? For me there are many. Some are vital, while others appear to be little more than decoration. But they are all necessary for me to feel confident and competent in my role as a daily newspaperman.

FAIRNESS. I believe this is the most important value I have as both a journalist and a person. I am constantly questioning whether I am being fair to the people I am writing about. Have I portrayed their thoughts and words fairly, or have I adulterated them in some way? Would I be comfortable reading my story to the people involved. I think one of the biggest compliments a journalist can receive is to be called tough but fair by someone he has written about in an uncomplimentary way.

BALANCE. Many journalists think balance and fairness are the same, but I am not one. I believe it is possible to write a perfectly balanced story that is totally unfair. To me, balance is what you have to fall back on when you are not able to be totally fair. It usually involves calling the so-called “other side” to get their expected response. Technically, that provides balance, but it rarely enlightens the reader or advances the public debate.

ACCURACY. To me, accuracy is much more than simply making sure I quote someone correctly or spell their name right. It also means I put their words and opinions in the proper context. It means I don’t embellish. It means that I report on people and events as truthfully as possible. I don’t tidy up what happened to fit neatly into whatever angle me or my editor might want the story to take. It means my writing is not tainted by whatever personal feelings I might have about the selected subject or people.

DIGNITY. The dignity of the people I write about is very important to me. So is the dignity of my readers and my newspaper. That does not mean that I am not an aggressive journalist, but it means I try not to take cheap shots. I have found that most hard-hitting stories are strengthened when the reporter shows respect toward the people or institutions under examination. Being mean usually hurts your credibility with the reader.

HUMANITY. In the movie “Absence of Malice,” there is a great scene where a wise old city editor talks about being a reporter. He says he knows how to report the news and he knows how not to hurt people, but he doesn’t know how to do both at the same time. This is a chillingly true statement. The best journalism usually hurts someone, often without meaning to. To me, humanity means I don’t hurt the innocent or those who have no idea what they are getting into when they talk to a reporter. Good journalists have a special responsibility when it comes to the unsophisticated. We have to tell them clearly they could be doing great harm to themselves without even knowing it. Avoid the leading questions. And leave the grieving alone. You can come back later if you have to.

The story will still be there and you will sleep better at night.

ASSERTIVENESS. This may sound odd as a journalistic value, but I think it is one of the most vital. As journalists today, we are constantly dealing with media-saavy subjects out to pursue their own agendas. I think we commit a disservice to our readers when we don’t go after these folks aggressively. No comment? Why not? Is there something besides covering your own ass or the asses of others that is preventing you from talking to me and helping enlighten the public? Is there some reason you feel entitled to conduct public business in private? If so, can you explain to me what that reason might be?

I believe all these different values combine to form what I like to call journalistic character. They push against one another and strengthen you as a journalist. It is this underlying character, I believe, that gives us the courage we need to stand by our convictions – even when our reasoning might be questioned by those we respect or fear. In the end it is this journalistic character, this incredible pair of underpants, that keep you from feeling naked when your pants fall down.

Ethics: Journalism’s Underpants

3 comments
Prof KRG
Prof KRG

Good! You don't want to get caught with those knickers down for sure!

KDillabough
KDillabough

I.love.this.post! Now I'm going to go check my undergarments drawer to be sure all is in order :) Cheers! Kaarina