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Ethics must be ongoing part of news discussions

On April 25, I wrote a Sunday column wailing that I felt "like I'd just attended a public hanging, with the gallows built because yet another reporter lied."...

On April 25, I wrote a Sunday column wailing that I felt "like I'd just attended a public hanging, with the gallows built because yet another reporter lied."

I had just returned from Washington, D.C., where I attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. During my few days there, the editor of USA Today and its managing editor for news resigned because they failed to realize, despite warning signs, that their star reporter, Jack Kelley, was disgracing our profession.

A report by USA Today, which was released while ASNE met, said Kelley made up facts in dozens of stories over several years and plagiarized in at least 100 instances. He lied about visiting with Elian Gonzalez's father; he never was at Osama bin Laden's terrorist training camps as he claimed. Many more examples of falsification were pinned on Kelley, including cheating on expense reports.

Until this month, the fallout from Kelley and the resignations of USA Today's ranking news executives, represented the latest of several scandals to scar our profession going back to last year and the Jayson Blair implosion at The New York Times.

Then came the Sept. 8 "60 Minutes Wednesday" bogus report against President Bush. Major indiscretions in the media just don't seem to stop.

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During the ASNE meeting, Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. challenged the hundreds of assembled editors and newspaper publishers to, "go back to your newspaper with the assumption that someone in your newsroom is doing these things."

"Run the drill, get ahead of the curve. Why wait for the kind of explosion that rocked The New York Times and USA Today?" Sulzberger told the audience that ethical lapses are much more likely "until your newspaper grapples with it individually."

While I didn't assume then and don't assume now that any one of our staff members is fabricating stories or stealing from another person's work, I thought in April that I could and should do a better job of making discussion of ethical conduct more a part of the newsroom culture.

On that Sunday in April, I wrote, "It's my belief that the discredit people like Kelley, Blair and others have brought to our profession in the past year gives every editor more reason to explain to readers what we're doing to preserve and protect the credibility of our newspapers.

"I pledge to do that during the weeks ahead."

It is time to report back to you on that pledge.

E In May, virtually every full-time newsroom employee participated on one of nine different ethics teams. Each team had different topic areas. They met throughout the summer to totally rewrite our policy, which had mimicked the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists.

E Within the next two weeks, the new Code of Ethics will be posted on the In-Forum Web site for you to see. It will remain accessible online. It is a policy authored by many members of our staff, who debated it feverishly at times, before agreeing on the final document.

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E In May, we contacted more than 150 people in our Real People Bank to comment on different ethical scenarios. Several dozen comments were shared with the staff to stimulate the work of the newsroom committees.

E Every other day throughout nearly all of June, I posed different hypothetical situations online and asked readers to put themselves in the editor's chair and chat about how they would deal with the ethical dilemma of the day. Scores of people participated in the chats. Their comments, too, were available to our staff.

E In July, we partnered with the Group Decision Center at North Dakota State University in what I consider a groundbreaking project. Twenty-four members of our staff used GDC's excellent facilities to comment anonymously by computer on the first draft of the policy, as well as areas of the newsroom operation. This led to some major revisions in a few areas of the first draft, especially related to life outside work.

E In August, we again used the GDC, this time to have readers comment on the revised draft. They also responded anonymously by computer. Their comments led to a tweaking of the newsroom's latest revised code. It gave us a good glimpse at readers' perception of how well we operate ethically.

E In September, the staff adopted the new Code of Ethics. The staff recommended an Ethics Committee be appointed to meet during the year and keep the discussion of ethical conduct alive.

E Last week and yesterday, Kelly McBride engaged our staff in a group discussion. McBride is one of the premier experts in North America on journalism ethics. She works for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

E We also told McBride that we wanted her to spend time here with young journalists and journalism teachers. Ethical conduct is heavily influenced in the home, as well as the classroom. McBride conducted two community forums yesterday at NDSU.

So, that's where the road has led us since I returned from Washington in April.

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Our entire staff, with help from hundreds of readers and an ethics discussion leader from Florida joined in an important discussion that I don't think we should ever let end.

Ziegler can be reached at lziegler@forumcomm.com

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