After discussing Mayhill Fowler’s dodgily-acquired scoops and the Vanity Fair piece criticizing her, I felt thoroughly conflicted. We’re inundated with bad journalism every day, including fake news, spun news, and poorly-researched newspoorly-researched news. But to put Fowler’s errors in withholding her standing as a journalist up next to those examples of bad journalism feels wrong – not simply out of any sense of magnitude, but in who exactly the victim of each of these errors are.
An incorrect article, whether it be a wholesale lie concocted to garner views or a fact-checking error that slipped past whatever editorial team is available, primarily does a disservice to the reader. Readers read articles because they have faith that what they are reading will be useful in some fashion, and that utility is rooted in fact. To her credit, there’s no reason to think anything Fowler reported is untrue – as a journalist, she’s fulfilled her contract with her readers.
Instead, the conflict is between her and the individual she was reporting on – and by extension, her employer. She put her reputation as a journalist sources may want to work with in jeopardy by doing this, and her association with whichever publication she chooses to write for will be affected by this. Despite this, I don’t believe this to be an issue of journalistic ethics. This was an issue of professional ethics, and framing this as an issue of journalistic ethics harms journalism.
While there are exceptions to every rule, there are few, if any, cases where infringing codes of journalistic ethics is necessary. Everything outlines in the SPJ Code of Ethics is for the creation of true, meaningful journalism. The closest the list comes to mentioning Fowler’s problem is “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” Even that is not a hard-line absolute, merely a warning.
To be clear, I am not dismissing the problematic nature of Fowler’s lack of transparency to her sources. However, lumping that omission in with errors of journalistic ethics does a disservice to Fowler and journalism as a whole, either diluting the real and relevant issues of misinforming readers, or elevating the needs of sources with the needs of readers. Either case threatens real, important journalism, which occasionally needs to go around the interests of sources, and always, always needs to be true.