Editorial Code of Ethics: a rant

This is not something I have ever considered writing down. I have delivered variations on this theme to reporters, editors-in-waiting, friends, and journalistic compatriots. But it goes something like this:

The Editor answers to no one but the Public, God, and their own conscience.

The first in the list is most important, the second for effect, and the third the only one that actually matters. All journalists answer to the public. That is what the business of journalism is; telling the public what they need and want to know. Those two things are not necessarily mutually inclusive, but both are equally important. One to buy their love, and the other to gain their respect.

You only answer to God if you believe in Him.

My journalism ethics teacher, Razvan Sibii, once told my class, “There are bad decisions and worse ones.” Of all the words in all the classes I have ever taken, these are the ones I revisit most often. Journalism ethics is at once Kantian and Utilitarian. Every decision made weighs the absolute value of an act (“would the world be a better place if everyone took this action?”) with its relative value (“will the good from this action outweigh its evil?”).

He also told us that at the end of the day, whatever choice we make must be one we can live with. Implicitly, make the choice that will not keep you from sleep, knowing that every decision you make will keep you from sleep.

1. Journalism is the public record.

The reason that you must be able to live with your choices is that they are written in stone. Newsprint is forever. It lives on not only in libraries and scrapbooks and countless hard drives and servers, but also in the memories of the people. Journalism is not called “the first draft of history” for nothing.

To try and score out the words that have been published under your masthead is to admit that you have not kept the oath of the Editor. In haste you published something you cannot live with, and it will keep you up at night. And this brings us to the most important thing…

2. You cannot take it back.

It is not possible to recall the paper. It is only possible to print corrections and apologies. In the age of the internet we have found false comfort in the notion that anything sent out can be erased from a website or pulled from a server. Too often some editor makes the desperate decision to take down something already circulated in print, already posted for however short a time to their website. Anything that has angered someone enough to demand an apology, has been screen capped and turned into a PDF.

To attempt to rescind the words published under you masthead, to resolve to remove from circulation offending material, without comment, is a violation of the oath of the Editor.

3. All Editors have opinions.

A good Editor is not one who is unbiased, a good Editor is one who is fair. To be unbiased is to be without passion, without strength, and without consideration. The observer, no matter how obscured, will always be observed in the act of observation.

This is why you must make the choice you can live with. This is why all choices are bad ones or worse ones. Because all choices say, “This is more True, than that,” or “This is worth knowing while that is not.” As Susan Sontag noted, choosing what to exclude is just as important as what you include.

The trouble with the myth of “objectivity” is that it has allowed the public to conflate the words of the writer for the words of the Editor. Articles are published with by-lines expressly to articulate this distinction. The Editor is responsible for the breadth of voices present, and the scope of the narratives articulated. The Editor is responsible, in the broadest sense, for every word published in their paper, but that does not mean that the Editor supports every opinion, word choice, or topic. If that were true, the papers with the greatest variety of contributors (in terms of race, creed, ethnicity, politics, nationalities, gender, sex, &c.) would have Editors schizophrenic enough to warrant a lifetime of heavy medication and confinement to a mental health institution.

4. Respect the Public.

We come back around to the first of all the lessons. Editors answer to no one but the Public. That requires a relationship based on intelligibility and mutual respect. Editorial decision cannot creep unannounced out of the nighttime darkness, and assert themselves without scrutiny. Equally, the Editor must have the patience and the commitment to respond to a public left betrayed or alarmed by Editorial decisions.

The Editor must be able to explain, when asked, why the decision they made is one that will allow them to sleep at night. Tell the Public what you tell yourself when the early morning visitors Doubt, Crisis, and Regret come in on Insomnia’s coattails. Tell them the story of how you came to the decision to publish the offending opinion, why you signed off on the story with the one-sided narrative, why you included such an article in the section you did.

Journalism is a story. It is the story we tell ourselves when it is too soon to understand the tragedy, too dizzying to comprehend the horror, and too complex to remember the individual experiences of everyone around us.

The Editor, too, has a story, the story of the Newspaper itself. The Editor must keep their oath to consider and document the decisions that bring forth our first draft of history.