In Journalism, the End Doesn't Justify the Means

The legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi, once said: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”

If that idea were applied to journalism, it would justify any action on the part of a reporter or editor to get an exclusive story. That, I submit, is wrong. And the scandal that has rocked Britain over journalistic methods in a sense grows out of that kind of ruthless behavior.  It raises legal and ethical questions for journalists everywhere.

In 2006, the tabloid News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch, investigated five senior police officers of Scotland Yard. Later, the police found that the cell phone messages of these officers had been hacked. These messages, the New York Times reports, “had most likely been listened to.”

The hackers zeroed in on the officers’ private lives, including allegations that one had padded his expense account and was involved in extra-marital affairs; and that another had used frequent flier miles accumulated on business trips for personal vacations. The possibility that the newspaper would reveal these matters, the Times suggests, might have intimidated the investigators.

Major news organizations,including NBC, have codes of ethics and behavior that prohibit wiretapping or phone hacking. Most major news organizations expect their employees to obey the law. The Times’ guidelines on journalistic ethics say staff members “must obey the law in the gathering of news. They may not break into buildings, homes, apartments or offices. They may not purloin data, documents or other property, including such electronic property as databases and e-mail or voice-mail messages.”

America has an old journalistic maxim that many city editors cherish: “Get it first. But, first, get it right.” That speaks for reporting accurately. But, in an ethical and legal sense, it’s not only what you report that counts but how you get it.

In the case of the London scandal, on Monday, it was reported that two of Murdoch’s newspapers may have bribed police office officers or used other illegal methods to get information about Queen Elizabeth II and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  On Sunday, Murdoch shut down the News of the World.

Former Prime Minister Brown believes that employees of the Murdoch company, News International, tried to hack into Brown’s personal files to get the medical records on his infant son who was suffering from cystic fibrosis.

The current Prime Minister, David Cameron, said he was outraged by the alleged police involvement in the hacking of the phones of members of the royal family. He called it “a dereliction of duty” and said: “We need to get to the bottom of that, if it’s true.”

I spoke to Stephen Shepard, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, about the hacking affair. He said: “It wrong. It’s not a gray area. What they did was illegal and, even if it weren’t, it’s just plain wrong. There’s no defense for it. Even the government needs a warrant to get into a house or a computer. You can’t break into something like this and get away with it.”

In Canada the Montreal Gazette’s Laura Baziuk writes: “The closure of a bestselling British tabloid over a phone-hacking scandal this week has thrown journalistic ethics back into the hot seat. Canadian observers say the controversy that closed Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World points to how hard media organizations are competing to stay afloat -- and at what cost. The Internet appears to be a cause, and definitely not a solution.”

The Associated Press statement of “news values and principles” says that “we insist on the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior when we gather and deliver the news.”          

No t a bad goal for all of us who engage in the pursuit of news. Journalism is tainted when we stoop to unethical or unlawful tactics. We should cherish traditional values like honesty and compassion -- and strive for winning from our readers and viewers what are most important: respect and credibility.

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