I share a lot of new-school views of journalism and journalism ethics in this blog. Today I want to share some old-school advice by a friend whose teaching of ethics transcended generations.
In the fall of 2009, I returned to my alma mater, Texas Christian University, to lead a seminar on the challenges of digital journalism. I was pleased to see a familiar face, Phil Record, who, as I recall, had been city editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when I was a TCU student. I hadn’t known him well then, but we chatted often enough at meetings of the Society of Professional Journalists (then known as Sigma Delta Chi) that I remembered who he was, and I was surprised and pleased to see that he remembered me some 33 years after I had graduated.
In a bit of generational stereotyping that embarrasses me, I presumed he was there as a courtesy, an emeritus faculty member showing up at a journalism school event to socialize and support. After all, I figured, what did an 80-year-old retired journalist want to know about the ethics of Twitter and blogging? I was shamed and pleased to see that Phil still taught ethics at the Schieffer School of Journalism and that he was one of the most engaged participants in my seminar. He didn’t know a lot about Twitter, but he was eager to learn and to dig into the ethical issues thoroughly enough to teach them.
Over lunch and at breaks, we renewed and deepened our friendship. I left TCU with great respect and admiration for Phil. I wished more of my Baby Boomer (and younger) colleagues who resist the tide of change could see this aging journalist embracing a future he didn’t fully understand.
I was doubly pleased to get another chance to see Phil again last October. I was invited back to TCU for another workshop and to be honored as a new member of the Hall of Excellence at the Schieffer School. I was touched by Phil’s kind words in the video that was part of the ceremony. In a brief but warm chat afterward, we expressed mutual admiration and thanks.
That would be the last time we spoke. Phil died less than three weeks later.
Phil got a suitable sendoff, including a tribute by “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer of CBS, to whom Phil was a mentor and after whom TCU’s J-school is named. John Lumpkin, director of the Schieffer School, tells me that donations to the Phil Record Endowed Scholarship have topped $250,000, and the scholarship has already been offered to the first of many students who will continue learning in his name.
But Phil himself hasn’t stopped teaching. A couple months after his death, a Schieffer School staff member found a copy of Phil’s personal journalism code of ethics. Andrew Chavez, a TCU journalism graduate now teaching at the Schieffer School, explained in an email:
During Phil’s ethics class everyone in the class had to create his/her own code of ethics. It was revised throughout the semester as students refined their views during class discussions. For me, it was one of the most important things I did during the semester and I continued to use that code of ethics when I went to the Star-Telegram.
This document, sent at the end of the semester, was Phil’s way of sharing his own code of ethics with others while giving some parting advice. He always wrote a personal letter to each class at the end of the semester.
Sometime in the fall of 2010 Jacque Lambiase in the strategic communication division used the copier after Phil and there was a copy of this sitting in one of the trays. She read it and liked it so much that she decided to hang on to it.
In late January she found the document and passed it around to Schieffer faculty.
Lumpkin shared the code with me, not knowing I had been asked to contribute to Quill magazine’s discussion of ethics in the April issue. I suggested to Scott Leadingham, editor of Quill, the SPJ magazine, that he might want to include it. So Scott has posted Phil’s code on the website of the Society of Professional Journalists (of which Phil was once president). I encourage you to read the full code there, but I’ll highlight a few points here:
- Credibility is the most precious thing you have in the field of mass communications. Cherish it. Protect it. Art Nauman, retired ombudsman of the Sacramento Bee, once said of credibility: “It is gained by the inch; it is lost by the foot.” You also learned that the law tells us what we can do, ethics tells us what we should do. Never forget that just because you have the right to do something does not mean it is the right thing to do. Also remember that the ethical thing is what you should do when no one is looking.
- Shed a little blood over your errors. Brushing off an error as something of unimportance is apt to anger a supervisor. But supervisors are much more apt to be sympathetic and forgiving when they find a person actually grieving over an error. In your bleeding, learn; then move on, intent never to so err again.
- Learn to be a good listener, especially when you are being criticized or corrected. This is an art because it is normal for us to immediately start building a defense when criticized, and in doing so we no longer devote our full attention to what is being said to us.
- Be compassionate. Be sensitive to the needs of others. Be sympathetic to those who are hurting. Compassion, sensitivity and sympathy are virtues. It is often the insecure who will abandon these virtues in fear of appearing to be weak. In doing so, they often expose their weaknesses.
- Limit the use of unnamed sources. The public doesn’t like them. They weaken credibility. Too often they are a tool of lazy reporters. Do not permit the cowardly to make personal attacks on another while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.
- Finally, recognize your own prejudices and biases. Don’t try to deny them. We all have them. But when we recognize them, we can deal with them. Then, and only then, will you be able to fulfill your mission of presenting the truth as you find it to be, not as you wish it to be.
I encourage you to read Phil’s full ethics code (I’ve shared about one-third of the points above) and then carry out the assignment he gave his students: to write down your own code of ethics. The SPJ Code of Ethics has provided valuable guidance for journalists for decades. I have called for updating the SPJ Code, and Phil’s code provides further valuable advice.
But Phil’s example was more valuable than his code or any code: True ethics comes not from following someone else’s rules, but from personal standards, expressed in your own language and applied in your own circumstances.
And Phil provided another example for journalists of any age or generation: Never stop learning.