Lecture targets modern media ethics

by Bryan Keogh

Media conglomeration, Internet anarchy and a fast-paced news cycle threaten journalists’ ability to report on issues and events with a high ethical standard, newspaper publisher Burl Osborne said Tuesday.
Osborne, publisher of The Dallas Morning News, spoke to about 160 students, faculty members and media professionals at the 14th annual Silha lecture at the Hubert H. Humphrey Center.
The Silha Center for Media Ethics and Law sponsored the event and invited Osborne, a former managing editor and reporter for the Associated Press. He joined the Dallas newspaper as executive editor in 1980 after 20 years with the AP.
Osborne said the Internet has had an enormous impact on news organizations, forcing them to gather information at a much faster pace in order to compete.
At the AP, Osborne said the motto was always: “Get it first, but first get it right.” He added he would rather be a day late on a story than run something without solid reporting.
He also said anybody can claim to be a journalist on the Web, leaving some to lump talk-show hosts like Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey with journalists like Sam Donaldson, George Will and Cokie Roberts.
“People are drowned in talk and starved for insight,” Osborne said.
He said the public continues to believe the media is accountable to no one and used a three-legged stool metaphor to describe journalistic integrity.
“The seat is credibility, on which we can speak with a clear, reliable voice,” he said.
The stool’s legs represent journalists’ values, ethical guidelines and the newsgathering business.
“If legs are strong and of equal length, they will support credibility,” he said.
The publisher said he welcomes news councils and increased reader interaction but said it is up to editors and reporters to police their ethical behavior.
University President Mark Yudof introduced Osborne at the lecture and called him a longtime friend.
“I think what I admire most is he is something of a curmudgeon,” Yudof said. “He hasn’t totally given up on humanity, but he is a curmudgeon and a nondiscriminatory one.”
Others in attendance said Osborne has a keen ability to put the problems facing journalists in perspective.
“Some people rant and rave about the media; he puts it into context,” said Silha professor Jane Kirtley.
William Babcock, director of the media ethics and law center, said Osborne was selected to give this year’s lecture because he faced tough ethical decisions during his career.
“It’s tough to get people of that stature on the stage,” Babcock said.
Osborne said he is also an admirer of Otto Silha, the former Star Tribune publisher who endowed the center with $1 million in 1984. Silha died on Sept. 11 at the age of 80. His wife and daughter attended Tuesday’s address.
“I thought he stood for the best,” Osborne said.

Bryan Keogh covers professional schools and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3232.