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On speaking up when someone in your profession behaves unethically.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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On Twitter recently there was some discussion of a journalist who wrote and published a piece that arguably did serious harm to its subject.

As the conversation unfolded, Kelly Hills helpfully dropped a link to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Even cursory inspection of this code made it quite clear that the journalist (and editor, and publisher) involved in the harmful story weren’t just making decisions that happened to turn out badly. Rather, they were acting in ways that violate the ethical standards for the journalistic profession articulated in this code.

One take-away lesson from this is that being aware of these ethical standards and letting them guide one’s work as a journalist could head off a great deal of harm.

Something else that came up in the discussion, though, was what seemed like a relative dearth of journalists standing up to challenge the unethical conduct of the journalist (and editor, and publisher) in question. Edited to add: A significant number of journalists even used social media to give the problematic piece accolades.

I follow a lot of journalists on Twitter. A handful of them condemned the unethical behavior in this case. The rest may be busy with things offline. It is worth noting that the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics includes the following:

Journalists should:

  • Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
  • Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
  • Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
  • Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
  • Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

That fourth bullet-point doesn’t quite say that journalists ought to call out bad journalistic behavior that has already been exposed by others. However, using one’s voice to condemn unethical conduct when you see it is one of the ways that people know that you’re committed to ethical conduct. (The other way people know you’re committed to ethical conduct is that you conduct yourself ethically.)

In a world where the larger public is probably going to take your professional tribe as a package deal, extending trust to the lot of you or feeling mistrust for the lot of you, reliably speaking up about problematic conduct when you see it is vital in earning the public’s trust. Moreover, criticisms from inside the professional community seem much more likely to be effective in persuading its members to embrace ethical conduct than criticisms from outside the profession. It’s just too easy for people on the inside to dismiss the critique from people on the outside with, “They just don’t understand what we do.”

There’s a connection here between what’s good for the professional community of journalists and what’s good for the professional community of scientists.

When scientists behave unethically, other scientists need to call them out — not just because the unethical behavior harms the integrity of the scientific record or the opportunities of particular members of the scientific community to flourish, or the health or safety of patients, but because this is how members of the community teetering on the brink of questionable decisions remember that the community does not tolerate such behavior. This is how they remember that those codes of conduct are not just empty words. This is how they remember that their professional peers expect them to act with integrity very single day.

If members of a professional community are not willing to demand ethical behavior from each other in this way, how can the public be expected to trust that professional community to behave ethically?

Undoubtedly, there are situations that can make it harder to take a stand against unethical behavior in your professional community, power disparities that can make calling out the bad behavior dangerous to your own standing in the professional community. As well, shared membership in a professional community creates a situation where you’re inclined to give your fellow professional the benefit of the doubt rather than starting from a place of distrust in your engagements.

But if only a handful of voices in your professional community are raised to call out problematic behavior that the public has identified and is taking very seriously, what does that communicate to the public?

Maybe that you see the behavior, don’t think it’s problematic, but can’t be bothered to explain why it’s not problematic (because the public’s concerns just don’t matter to you).

Maybe that you see the behavior, recognize that it’s problematic, but don’t actually care that much when it happens (and if the public is concerned about it, that’s their problem, not yours).

Maybe that you’re working very hard not to see the problematic behavior (which, in this case, probably means you’re also working very hard not to hear the public voicing its concerns).

Sure, there’s a possibility that you’re working very hard within your professional community to address the problematic behavior and make sure it doesn’t happen again, but if the public doesn’t see evidence of these efforts, it’s unreasonable to expect them to know they’re happening.

It’s hard for me to see how the public’s trust in a profession is supposed to be strengthened by people in the professional community not speaking out against unethical conduct of members of that professional community that the public already knows about. Indeed, I think a profession that only calls out bed behavior in its ranks that the public already knows about is skating on pretty thin ice.

It surely feels desperately unfair to all the members of a professional community working hard to conduct themselves ethically when the public judges the whole profession on the basis of the bad behavior of a handful of its members. One may be tempted to protest, “We’re not all like that!” That’s not really addressing the public’s complaint, though: The public sees at least one of you who’s “like that”; what are the rest of you doing about that?

If the public has good reason to believe that members of the profession will be swift and effective in their policing of bad behavior within their own ranks, the public is more likely to see the bad actors as outliers.

But the public is more likely to believe that members of the profession will be swift and effective in their policing of bad behavior within their own ranks when they see that happen, regularly.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Chryses 1:19 pm 01/18/2014

    Journalists do not, in my experience, receive particularly high ethical ratings. Granted, that may be as a result of a small sample size, but such is my experience.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jennifer Ouellette 7:24 pm 01/18/2014

    As a science journalist, I, too, was appalled, as were most of my colleagues, and most of us were quite open and public about that. But I’m not sure there’s an ethical compunction to voice one’s displeasure over Twitter or Facebook specifically, just because it makes for good public relations/a better public image. :) Rather, there is a responsibility to hold ourselves (collectively) accountable. This can be done via social media, or it can done via private email, or closed listserv discussions, etc. For the record, the Guardian DID cop to its error and pulled the article in question. Still waiting on the NYT to follow suit.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 8:03 pm 01/18/2014

    The article I have in mind isn’t by either of the Kellers (as the discussion I’ve linked should make clear).

    And I agree, no one is required to use Twitter or Facebook as the venue in which to let members of one’s professional community know that they’ve screwed up. However, if all the pressure on bad actors is private, and if no visible consequences for the bad behavior come to the bad actor, you can understand how the public might get the idea that members of the professional community don’t care about the bad behavior.

    Link to this
  4. 4. BaiShann 12:28 am 01/19/2014

    imho, doctors are the worst professionals for not reporting each other. Even when sb tries to sue a doctor, they have great difficulty obtaining witness evidence. It is the same with police, I think, except they aren’t scientists or professionals.

    Link to this
  5. 5. anumakonda 8:25 am 01/19/2014

    Excellent Blog article.
    Most professional bodies such as societies, associations, and academies expect their members to follow the highest ethical values in the conduct of their professional work. These values are based on universal moral principles like honesty, truthfulness, and fairness. For each profession, these values get translated into a separate ‘code of conduct’ statement. Such codes provide guidance on expected behaviour from
    the members under different circumstances and enhance the credibility of the profession in the perception of the public. They also tend to define an ideal which each member could strive to attain.
    The same ethical requirements apply to the scientific profession also. Science has many applied branches like engineering, and medicine, each having its own professional society and its own detailed code of conduct. These codes are based on the same basic moral principles but differ in detail because of the different activities of various societies.

    By and large many of these so called moral values are often ignored in the race for recognition and promotions. So long as preference is given to quantitative(not qualitative) publications in rewards and awards,the race for publishing continues ,often resulting in erosion of ethics.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Link to this
  6. 6. rkipling 12:12 pm 01/19/2014

    Chryses,

    Studies show no correlation between ethical behavior and intelligence, so I doubt that journalist or scientist demographics maintain significantly different ethical standards than the general population, if politicians and used car sales staff are excluded. If that is the case then we are no more likely to find the like of Zarathustra(1) among scientists, science writers, or journalists than in the general population.

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    I see no problem with using any venue you choose to address perceived misconduct. I suspect however that you are optimistic that the public will take much notice of happenings within any professional community. Most I suspect are unaware of the existence of these communities much less their standards.

    Given the sensitivity to any sort of perceived bias, anyone expressing bias in media must understand they will be called on it. That must be true at least for flagrant instances such as described in this article. The perpetrator of the Einstein/Marie Curie action figure depravity might have been initially oblivious to his crimes.

    1 – For those unfamiliar, Zarathustra was concerned with the struggle between truth and lies.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rkipling 12:20 pm 01/19/2014

    I think Zarathustra and Dr.Stemwedel would get along just fine.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Chryses 3:51 pm 01/19/2014

    rkipling,

    You may well be right.

    Link to this
  9. 9. z34aa 5:54 pm 01/19/2014

    Time and again I am hearing from people who read about this story that the reporter was just doing his ‘job’. It seems that America has been influenced to the belief that a journalist is supposed to get the story no matter what the costs, and that anything that happens along the way, or because of the story, is immaterial. That somehow there is a moral imperative to share with the world whatever the reporter can discover.

    Where and when did this belief start? In no other profession is the excuse ‘he was just doing his job’ an acceptable one for harm to others.

    Link to this
  10. 10. tuned 6:19 pm 01/21/2014

    All I see is throwing rocks both ways.
    Hypocrisy is apparent, exposing whoever did the exposing to being exposed and attacked also. It seems it depends on personal politics as far as where the buck stops.
    I think it is not good for society to live in deception in the first place. The “code of silence” grows and becomes a malignant thing.

    Link to this
  11. 11. tuned 6:21 pm 01/21/2014

    S.A. has messed up several times today.
    Hackers again?

    Link to this
  12. 12. rkipling 8:06 pm 01/21/2014

    tuned,

    What’s wrong with judging people on the content of their character?

    Link to this

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