As journalists seek the truth, they are guided by a code of ethics. They are expected to present the events around them just as they happened, and without a code of ethics, their work is suspect.
Several weeks ago the viewers of NBC’s Nightly News learned that anchor Brian Williams had not been truthful about a reporting trip to Iraq in 2003. He had claimed, on several occasions, that the Chinook helicopter in which he was riding was struck by a rocket propelled grenade and machine gun fire forcing them to land in the desert. Williams told this story during an interview in 2013 on The Late Show with David Letterman.
The embellished tale gained new attention when Williams repeated it Jan. 30 on his newscast.
Williams later apologized for this statement on Feb. 4 on The Nightly News saying, “This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women.” But momentum built as other tales Williams had recounted over the year were questioned. A week later he was suspended from his newscast for six months without pay. It is unclear whether he will return.
Whether Williams lied for the publicity or simply misremembered the event, it raises an interesting question: why would such a well-respected journalist like Williams continue telling his story?
According to a memo from NBC News President Deborah Turness, Williams “misrepresented” the event.
Misrepresentation is still a lie, and NBC took the right course of action by having Williams apologize for his mistake and suspending him.
If Williams did this for publicity, I can’t see the reasoning behind it. As soon as Williams reported the story in February, soldiers that were in Iraq while Williams was there called him out on it saying that he was not telling the truth, including a solider that was on the Chinook that was struck by the RPG.
In an article published on Sunday, Feb.14, in The Washington Post, dozens of Williams’s current and former colleagues said that he enjoyed simply being a storyteller and “that he could sometimes lose sight of where the truth began and where it ended.”
One interviewed reporter, whose name was not given, said, “He’s a guy who gets caught up in the story. He’s a great storyteller. But sometimes storytellers embellish. But you don’t embellish about getting hit by an RPG.”
This could be the reason why Williams lied about the event in 2003. He was not in his normal setting; he was a guest on The Late Show and was in front of the desk instead of behind it. This more casual setting may have created an atmosphere that led Williams to create the story so he would be a more interesting guest.
After this mistake was discovered, other news networks began releasing statements about it—even Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, where Williams was a guest 22 times.
Williams’s actions were a breach in journalist ethics. So, what can that teach young journalists?
Associate professor of communications at Shepherd and Chair of the Department of Communications Jason McKahan said, “I know plenty of people who have maximized or minimized their roles in stories they wrote.”
McKahan continues in saying the code of ethics he used as a journalist was the code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists. The code is simple with four principles to it: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.
Even students who are not journalists can respect a code of ethics. Every class students take at Shepherd has something about ethics in the syllabus—plagiarism and cheating being the main ones—but this should extend to all parts of students’ lives.
College trains students to graduate with skills that can help them succeed, and something that every student should have been taught is to be ethical. Just like in journalism, everyone is accountable for their actions in any job, and a code of ethics is the one thing that will make sure students are accountable in the real world.
Seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable. In Brian Williams’s case, he seems to have forgotten these principles. His story breached all of these because he did not speak the truth and caused harm to NBC and The Nightly News. If a code of ethics is followed, a story will be untouchable, whatever someone may throw at it; but without it, like in Williams’s case, it will crumble and, if you are not careful, will bring you down with it.