A Question of Ethics in the News Media

By Bronson Havard
Dallas Diocese Newspaper [Dallas, Texas]
Downloaded May 23, 2003

The exposure of The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair - who deceived readers over a long period of time with false stories - has stirred intense interest, but too little critical evaluation of journalism practices and ethics across the country.

Accuracy in the Media, a watchdog group that monitors the news media in America, has long pointed to the gullibility of news organizations to publish or broadcast false stories or information.

From the Times to a false story about a man marketing "puppy poop" or a deceptive letter from a nonexistent Sr. Immaculata Dunn printed in The Dallas Morning News and in other newspapers, there is quite a volume of evidence that the news media is occasionally deceived and often gets the story or parts of the story wrong.

There was a time when news publishing was a far more diverse profession - more newspapers, more independently owned television and radio stations and more general interest publications. They tended to present different sides of the story. Readers practiced the art of discerning the truth by reading multiple sources of information.

Today, the news media has changed considerably and so have the sources of information for many people. The media is essentially several giant monopolies, becoming even more monopolized by its politically active owners in changing the nation's communication laws (See page one story.)

One such media giant is Belo Corp., which now controls WFAA-TV's Channel 8, Dallas' leading TV station; TXCN, Texas' only cable network station; The Dallas Morning News, the city's only daily newspaper and most of the Metroplex's suburban newspapers. It is a story of monopoly that the News will not report.

Therefore, what many people know in Dallas is only what the Belo Corp. wants them to know. WFAA is required to promote stories from The Dallas Morning News. Other TV stations are likely to take their cue from Belo's operations unless they have a rare independently-minded manager. Radio talk show commentators - a growing form of "entertainment news" - often get their information by reading the pages of The Dallas Morning News.

So much has changed corporately. The New York Times owns the Boston Globe. There have been arguments that change is OK because solid journalism ethics remain in place. The Times situation proves that is not always the case.

Locally, we do not have to go to the Times for evidence of sliding ethics in journalism. The Morning News offers examples of questionable ethics that are obvious to leaders of the Catholic Church, consistently the target of their politically motivated attacks. Former U.S. Congressman Dick Armey of Denton was so outraged by Belo that he sought legislation to break up the monopoly that now owns the Denton Record-Chronicle.

While opponents to the Morning News cannot effectively stand up against Belo Corp. in political battles, they can raise questions of ethics when they can find some smaller voice willing to speak up.

The Catholic Church, particularly the Diocese of Dallas and its Bishop Charles V. Grahmann and Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante, is under almost constant attack from The Dallas Morning News in one way or another.

The News is the only paper that has a full-time reporter whose apparent job is to air the church's dirty laundry. The reporter in question, Brooks Egerton, is not a religion writer. The News may deny he is a single-issue reporter, but show us where Egerton has written about anything that reflects well on the Catholic Church. He does not apply the same intensity to other denominations despite the evidence of abuse in their ranks.

Where the News has decried lack of openness in the Catholic Church, a private organization that functions publicly like the newspaper, the newspaper does not practice what it preaches. The News does not reveal the backgrounds of its editors and writers that might reveal their own biases about the Catholic Church.

For example, in violation of its own policies about conflicts of interest, it allows and continues to allow editorial writer Timothy O'Leary, who was part of the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish dispute last year, to express his personal opposition in columns and editorials.

Often times, he writes his personal gripes about the church - and consistently raises the year-old St. Thomas dispute - behind the veil of an unsigned editorial.

The News does not identify backgrounds of divorced or fallen-away Catholics, or feminist and homosexual activists, who write disparagingly about the Catholic Church and may have conflicts of interest, or even investigate the backgrounds of people who are quoted as condemning the church and its leadership. One activist street protester often quoted in the News is a fired former diocesan employee who may, just may, have an axe to grind.

Unlike its demands to the Catholic Church, the News does not tell readers when its editorial employees are engaged in lawsuits, personal misconduct and questionable lifestyles. We could tell all that we know, but our Christian ethics guides us to be charitable.

When errors are made in the News' columns, there is a willingness on the part of editors to correct them. However, the corrections are never in proportion to the damage done, never in the prominent location where the errors occurred and rarely given in a timely manner.

Nonetheless, personally and professionally, the news reporters and editors that we know are courteous and good people. In our opinion, they are caught up in something that is a serious ethical issue in journalism: Are they treating the Catholic Church and its priests, bishops and ministers fairly?

The News raises the high call of "morality" about priests who have sinned, but have committed no crime. The church has always held that priests are human, and has never claimed they are sinless. But, some sins that the Morning News inflames its readers about do not rank as the most immoral. For example, the church believes that the murder committed during an abortion is one of the worst sins, yet the News is unabashedly pro-abortion.

The News and some of its employees have a lot of problems with the Catholic Church. Paradoxically, the publisher of the News, Jim Moroney III, is Catholic. He sees no conflict with being the Catholic head of a pro-abortion newspaper, but he wants Bishop Charles Grahmann to resign because he disagrees with the bishop on how to manage the church.

The tragedy is that many Catholics know nothing about many things that have occurred except what they read in the News. (It is hard for us to set the record straight, but please visit, and click "The Truth" link.)

Just look at the recent articles that rehash old cases of abuse, second-guess the church's action and treat allegations as absolute truth - not just in child abuse when credibility is best granted to accusers - but in cases of adult situations when nothing has been proven in a court of law.

It is obvious what the Morning News is doing. Look at the Morning News' so-called investigations: They are one-sided, laced with accusatory and inflammatory language and never result in any criminal or conclusive legal action. When legal action takes place, the News has made no contribution.

The Morning News clearly wants to wage war against the Catholic Church. That should outrage Catholics. The suspicion is Belo wants to boost circulation of its monopoly operations and to support the movement of its news operations to Collin County where the church has many followers.

Good and ethical reporting at the News was left behind long ago.


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