Former Inquirer managing editor Gene Foreman writes new book: The Ethical Journalist

The temptation to post news stories first and correct mistakes later can undermine the public’s faith in journalism in the Internet age.

That’s one point raised by former Philadelphia Inquirer managing editor Gene Foreman in his new book: The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News (October 2009, Wiley-Blackwell, www.wiley.com).

“A variety of factors combine to pose a threat to the tradition of checking and re-checking that quality journalism requires,” Foreman says. “The Internet is a medium geared for speed. News sites have been thinly staffed. It is easy to update and correct Internet reporting. So the temptation is to get ahead of the competition by posting something and correcting it on the fly.”

He believes the long-term credibility of Internet reporting is at stake over the issue of adequate deliberation about and editing of news posted there. And he does not sound optimistic.

So far, he writes, most web reporting and editing has been underwritten by the print and broadcast news outlets that own the online news sites.

“The question of verification becomes even more important if, as seems likely, the Internet becomes the dominant news medium. When the website is the mother ship, will its bosses suddenly allocate the resources to provide the kind of editing that is needed? Contemporary news media history suggests the opposite. If a website has somehow succeeded without spending extra dollars on editing, there is no financial impetus to change.”

While journalism ethics have been a topic since Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play “The Front Page” (and even before that), today’s changing media environment brings new concerns. Among those addressed by Foreman in his book:

•Infotainment – a blending of news and entertainment, mostly celebrity gossip – and its capacity to drain resources from important news stories.•Journalism’s failure to develop a successful business model for Internet news, and the consequences of that failure in terms of the news media’s ability to deliver vital information to the public. •The need for responsible journalists to distinguish their work from blogging and citizen-contributed content that do not meet journalism’s standards.

Historically journalists have been gatekeepers of the news, deciding what information is worthy of passing along to the public. The Internet has changed that role forever, and the need now is for journalism that will help consumers make sense of the information available from a multitude of sources.

“Although the technology for delivering news is changing radically, the public’s need for reliable information is the same. Confronting a daily deluge of information, citizens will look for sources they can trust to be accurate, to be fair, to be independent. More than ever, they will depend on ethical journalists.”

Foreman’s 408-page text, described by Jim Naughton, president emeritus of the Poynter Institute, as “…like a GPS for sound decision-making,” does not neglect any of the traditional conundrums encountered by journalists.

Plagiarism, fabrication, conflicts of interest, tensions between the business and news sides, decisions about privacy, decisions about taste, and dealing with sources—all and more are covered.

Foreman employs 24 case studies and a dozen “point of view” essays by others. He interviewed more than 100 journalists and scholars for the text.

The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University provided support for the project. Foreman served for eight years as the first Foster Professor at Penn State’s College of Communications after his retirement from The Inquirer in 1998. He is still a visiting professor.

He managed The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom for more than 25 years under various titles – managing editor, executive editor and deputy editor. In total, he spent 41 years in newspaper journalism. For 33 years he managed newsrooms – at the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock and The Inquirer. He worked as a reporter and assigning editor at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, as a copy editor at The New York Times, and as senior editor in charge of news and copy desks at Newsday on Long Island.

Foreman was president of the Associated Press Managing Editors in 1990 and was a board member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors from 1995 to 1998. In 1998 he received a career achievement award from the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Gene Foreman