Book review: "The Ethics of the Story"

A skim through the table of contents of “The Ethics of the Story” could lead the casual reader to perceive this book as a typical textbook on reporting or editing. The chapter titles sound familiar enough: Description and Attribution; Quotes and Paraphrasing; Word Choice, Labeling and Bias.

But a closer look reveals that the treatment of these topics is anything but perfunctory. “The Ethics of the Story” is an illuminative discussion of the intersections of journalistic practices and philosophies. It is an important work that addresses audiences both in the classroom and in the newsroom.

The author, David Craig, has gone straight to the source of what is happening in newsrooms across the country, interviewing 60 journalists about the ethical choices they make in their jobs. A former copy editor who now teaches at the University of Oklahoma, Craig has spoken with reporters, copy editors and assignment editors at The Oregonian, the Dallas Morning News and the Los Angeles Times. The depth and candor of their comments show that Craig is an effective interviewer in his own right; the clarity with which he presents his findings demonstrates his prowess as a writer.

The methodology of “in the newsroom” interviewing serves as a perfect vehicle in the drive to find answers to the questions that Craig poses:

  • How are journalists reflecting reality in their writing and editing?
  • How does the simple act of deciding which direct quote to use from an interview affect the value of truth?
  • How does a choice of wording by an editor alter the tenor of a story?
  • What are the ethical values that form the foundation of these choices?

The questions may seem obvious, but they have often gone unasked even in the face of high-profile violations of ethical responsibilities in journalism. Craig mentions the fabrications perpetrated by reporters Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, and the devastation they brought on the entire profession.

However, Craig is not especially interested in this scandalous side of the profession. Instead, he focuses on the behavior of honest journalists. These are hard-working, straightforward people attempting to present readers with the reality around them with the tools of reporting, writing and editing.

In trying to accurately depict that reality, the journalists Craig studies must constantly make decisions — about sources, about story forms and about word choices — while under deadline pressure. As Craig writes: “The day-to-day, paragraph-by-paragraph choices are important ethical matters because they go together to influence the picture of the world that the audience takes from news stories, features, analyses and commentaries.”

Focusing on this narrow segment of the ethical spectrum makes “The Ethics of the Story” a thought-provoking portrayal of the everyday workings of the newspaper newsroom. Most journalists, after all, are not like Blair or Kelley. They are the ones interviewed here: They want to do the right thing, and they adhere to the principles of truth and compassion, which Craig asserts are core ethical concerns.

None of these journalists would argue that the actions of Blair are ethical. But they may disagree, for example, about whether an anecdotal lead inadvertently skews a story in an unethical direction. And they may disagree about terminology on issues such as abortion. These are the daily debates among journalists (and, ideally, among students in journalism schools) that are finally getting the academic study that they deserve.

For much of the book, Craig allows the journalists to speak for themselves, and their comments open a window on the newsroom that will fascinate academics and professionals alike. “It’s not my job to insert my voice into the story,” says one copy editor about respecting the work of reporters. “But it is my job to make sure that his voice is as clear as possible.” At the end of each chapter, Craig also offers his recommendations on these decisions, and he provides well-reasoned advice on attribution, anecdotal leads and other topics.

If “The Ethics of the Story” has any shortcomings, it is its exclusivity to print journalism. The author acknowledges the rapid changes in the newspaper industry but doesn’t bring in the views of those working in other media, particularly online. How are these new journalists confronting the issues faced by their print counterparts? Their views would be a worthy addition to the next edition of this book.

This book review also appears in the latest issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.