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On speaking up when someone in your profession behaves unethically.

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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.

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

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