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Jerry Ceppos: remarks on stepping down as president of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications

April 30, 2004
Cambridge, Mass.

Thank you...and thank you for indulging me for six years. My time as president of the council by far has been my most rewarding professional experience other than my job. I appreciate the dedication that you've shown and the help that you've given me. I even almost now understand the importance of mini-DV decks for broadcast students, but I'm quite certain that I couldn't operate one.

I also want to thank Tony Ridder, my boss, for understanding the importance of journalism education and supporting for many, many years my work on the council.

Finally, I thank Susanne Shaw, who has encouraged and taught me for years. I started to write that Susanne is the soul of the Council. She is. But, because of the Council's importance and her own strength, she also is part of the soul of American journalism education.

In Saundra Keyes you will have an incredibly thoughtful president who understands the academy, because she was part of it. It's interesting to watch the Council react when Saundra speaks. Everyone listens because her comments are so incisive. On the other hand, I'm fairly sure that she'll need coaching on mini-DV decks, too.

***

Almost a year ago to the day, I told the Council, meeting in San Jose, that I was troubled by the ethics cases that kept coming up. In fact, I said, only that week there was a rumor of something happening at the New York Times. A day later, the Times ran the famous four pages of reporting that sprung from its investigation of Jayson Blair.

Since then--one year ago--the following newspapers have been tainted by plagiarism. Before I read their names--and several college papers are among them--remember that this list undoubtedly is incomplete because it came from a quick Internet search...and because these are only the cases where editors told readers about plagiarism, ...and because these are all PLAGIARISM cases, not other ethical violations. With those warnings, here's the list--since Jayson Blair:

One--USA Today, obviously.
Two--The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Three--The Hartford Courant.
Four--The Bozeman Chronicle.
Five--The Boulder Daily Camera.
Six--The New York Times, where a reporter lifted one paragraph.
Seven--The Chicago Tribune.
Eight--The Sedalia Democrat in Missouri.
Nine--The Macon Telegraph.
Ten--The Daily Kansan, at the University of Kansas.
Eleven--The Tiger, at Clemson University.
Twelve--The Cavalier Daily, at the University of Virginia.
Thirteen--The Oklahoma Daily, at the University of Oklahoma.

Why is this list any less shameful than that other list with which you're familiar: Tyco, Worldcom, Enron, Arthur Andersen, Computer Associates?

If any outsider poked his or her head in this room, the first question obviously would be, "What are you doing about this epidemic of ethical problems in journalism?"

In fact, I'll bet that our list will be twice as long a year from now. My gut tells me that every newsroom employs plagiarists, or at least staff members who don't understand what plagiarism is. Incidentally, an Ohio State professor who wrote a piece for the Columbus Dispatch said that he hadn't actually plagiarized because you can copy up to 150 words without penalty. My guess is that our newsrooms, and probably this Council, are full of people with varying interpretations of what plagiarism is. Shouldn't we at least engage the discussion in every school of journalism?

I'm also certain that our newsrooms are full of people who don't begin to understand readers' expectations on fairness and accuracy, which are at least as important to the ethical conversation as plagiarism. More on those subjects in a minute.In a way, the public already is poking its head in but hasn't realized that ours is one of the groups that should be interrogated. In the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz quoted a report released in March by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report said:

"Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s." Kurtz then noted that 67 per cent of those asked believe news organizations try to cover up their mistakes. The number was 13 per cent in the '80s.

Is there any question that the Accrediting Council should own a piece of this huge issue?

We did strengthen our language slightly when we rewrote the standards, and I fully agreed to the language we adopted. But neither before nor after the rewrite have I heard the Council discuss ethics and fairness instruction for more than a moment, if that. I now realize that the change wasn't significant enough.

No, I don't want to be prescriptive. But our failings in ethics and fairness are as serious as our earlier failings on diversity, and we found a way to begin to address that problem. That solution wasn't perfect, but our profession is in a much stronger situation than if we had ignored diversity because of a fear of being prescriptive, because we couldn't get our arms around the issue.

Another obstacle is that ethical and moral demands and histories are perhaps slightly different for journalism, advertising and public relations, all of which this Council covers. But my guess is that ethical WORRIES are great for all three groups. We can overcome this obstacle, too.

Kim Walsh-Childers of the University of Florida began to put her finger on the problem when she shared this candid thought with Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute:

"One thing I've been wondering, not surprisingly, is how journalism educators are contributing to this problem and, more to the point, what if anything we can do to help. I haven't spent much time in my ethics classes talking about plagiarizing and fabrication because those issues just seemed like no-brainers. We try to talk about how to make decisions about when controversial techniques such as deception or using confidential sources might be acceptable; given that plagiarizing and fabrication are NEVER acceptable, there didn't seem to be much to discuss on those issues. But maybe those are just the symptoms and there's an underlying disease that does need to be discussed--that's what I'm inclined to think, although I can't put my finger on what I think the disease is called."

In my book, the disease is called confusion about what's ethical, lack of knowledge of the consequences of unethical behavior, misunderstanding of journalism's constitutional role and a different definition of fairness from that of the public.

I'm not trying to put all of the burden on our schools. Clearly our professions haven't done a good job of reinforcing whatever ethics instruction takes place before graduation.

But school is the place to begin. As Pam Luecke, a member of the Accrediting Committee and a professor at Washington and Lee University wrote on the Poynter site:

"College students are at a highly impressionable age and their professors are, occasionally, among those who can make an impression. While students might arrive on campus with wildly different views of the world and morality, each still has the capacity to learn and to grow. We've all seen it happen; for many of us, that's why we teach."

Pam went on to suggest helping students "grapple with increasingly murky concepts such as authorship, sourcing and intellectual property."

I'd go further-or maybe I'd go a few steps back, before dealing with those sophisticated concepts. I'd include in ethics instruction what I call real-time ethics, or the study of fairness and accuracy.

Why not ask students to analyze the corrections published in the student newspaper or the local newspaper so they can understand how mistakes happen?

Why not drum into students that we should publish more corrections, not fewer?

Why not ask students to debate whether it's appropriate to read a complex story to sources before publication?

Why not ask students to study when to name suspects, victims, juveniles-even when to publish unsubstantiated accusations in civil lawsuits?

Why not ask students to listen to a panel of newsmakers talking about what it's like to, as the saying goes, have journalism done to you?

Why not ask student reporters and editors to 'fess up to their most embarrassing errors-and what they learned from them?

Why not ask students to write a deep story on a campus issue, then invite the sources in to say whether the story is framed correctly, whether all sides are represented, whether names and dates are correct, whether the complexities are appropriately gray or too distinctly black and white?

Why not ask students to critique the student newspaper or the local newspaper for fairness?

Why not ask students to develop unorthodox ways in which newspapers can explain themselves to readers?

And why not ballyhoo on journalism-school home pages and course catalogues the importance of, and our pride in, ethics instruction? That could be one way of raising the profile of a subject that sometimes seems to take a back seat to convergence and newsletter publishing.

Yes, I know that there is lots of fine ethics instruction in schools of journalism and mass communications. But to the member of the public who poked his head in here, that's a little like Major League Baseball saying that rules are in place preventing the use of steroids.

No, I don't have a solution and I'm delighted that it's no longer my job to grapple with one. But I do believe that we could develop a set of outcomes that we hope for from ethics and fairness instruction, a procedure that wouldn't be prescriptive. Perhaps we even should publish a guide to meeting new standards on ethics education, as we did on diversity last year; it was full of ideas, not requirements.

Six years ago, as he was leaving the Council presidency, Bob Giles said that the public wants "to know if students are learning about fairness, about credibility, about trust as fundamental values in journalism."

Also six years ago, The American Editor, the publication of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, ran a stark black cover with the word "Mortification" in big red letters, about the scandals of 1998.

We have it within our power to make sure that we're not debating this same subject six years from now.

Thank you.


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