Doing your own ethics audit

Here are the questions to ask as you look at stories about your coverage area.

By Deni Elliott

P.S./Elliott is a monthly column written by consulting editor Deni Elliott. Elliott is executive director of the Ethics Institute, Dartmouth College.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 8 (November 1989), pp. 1,8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


If I had spent Sept. 11-15 locked in a Cleveland hotel room with only the local evening news and The Plain Dealer to tell me about the city outside my door, I would have come to know Cleveland as extraordinarily white and male. I would have come to know a city either preoccupied with or besieged by crime.

Ethics audits, like the one I recently conducted in Cleveland, can help news directors and editors take a critical look at the city they hope to represent through their coverage.

The tools for conducting an audit are few – a week or two of coverage and a sharp eye for noticing both what appears and what doesn’t. The questions for a rudimentary audit are simple. The answers are sometimes surprising.

1) How many men and women appear as subjects or sources in news photos or footage? What is the racial balance? What are those people doing?

In answering this question I am leaving out sports and weather because my focus is on the people who are presented as setting and carrying out the city’s agenda.

Aside from the Cleveland city council president, who was also a candidate for mayor, every judge, lawyer or law-enforcement officer pictured as the subject or identified source in the Channel 3 (NBC) coverage was a white male. Except for candidates, the adult black men who appeared as subjects or sources were either the NAACP president or a preacher reacting to an alleged racial incident or people accused or convicted of crimes.

On Channel 8, the CBS affiliate, 10 white men appeared as subject or source for every black woman. About 85 percent of the men presented were active; they were authority figures, business owners, or people arrested for or convicted of crimes. Less than 20 percent of the women pictured on the evening news that week were seen in active roles. They were victims or relatives of victims, residents, and consumers. They were people who were acted upon.

2) What words are being used to describe the people in the news?

This was the week of a sensational rape trial in Cleveland. One woman, identified at her request, was referred to most often as a “rape victim.”

However, Channel 8 called her a “courageous survivor” on one newscast; Channel 5 (ABC) once introduced her as someone who “says she was raped.”

One murder victim referred to during that week was called the “Lakewood widow” by all but one news organization. If the victim had been male, would he have become known as the “Lakewood widower”?

3) What gets most attention? What counts as news? Are readers/viewers given context for events?

Of the 30 local stories that appeared those days on Page 1 or the metro front of The Plain Dealer, about half related to crime. The crime stories in The Plain Dealer and those on the local evening news broadcasts were presented as episodic events.

For example, although the trial of the “West Side Rapist,” who had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and the stories told by his accusers dominated the local news, no news organization brought notice to the irony that, in the same week, Brooklyn, OH, residents were petitioning the court for the early release of a sex offender.

Only one station included any information in the rape trial coverage that went beyond courtroom process. A rape crisis coordinator spoke briefly for Channel 5 about the long-term damage of rape.

But President Bush’s speech on drugs to the nation’s young people brought the predictable reaction-from-local-students story from the all the news organizations. Channel 8 also used the speech as a springboard for a story about a drug education and prevention program provided in local schools by law-enforcement officials.

The exodus of East Germans that week spawned a story, also on Channel 8, that provided comments from local residents of German birth or descent.

4) Who’s missing?

No Asian faces appeared except those of Chinese demonstrators holding a 100-day memorial service for those killed in Tiananmen Square. The demonstrators showed up in newspaper photos and on one of the stations. Based on what appeared in the background as well as the foreground of news photos and footage, no people with disabilities live in the Cleveland coverage area; and there are no homeless.

So what does this have to do with ethics? Everything.

News media mirror their coverage area. It’s important to know where the image is distorted and where the accurate representation is troubling. For example, if more than 90 percent of the people in power in the Cleveland coverage area are white and male, that fact in itself might be deemed newsworthy. As well as holding mirror to the coverage area, news media magnify aspects that warrant community notice.