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On Heels of News of the World Closure, A Look at Newspaper Ethics at Home

Monday, July 11, 2011

Newspaper stand (noodlepie/flickr)

Amid a phone hacking scandal that led to the closure of the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid News of the World in the U.K. last week, experts say newspapers in the U.S. employ self-policing ethical standards that can often walk the line of decency.

And unconventional information gathering practices such as going through trash on the sidewalk, misrepresenting oneself to gain access to a building could fall under the umbrella of being legal, experts say.

"There’s no doubt in mind that hacking into a phone is illegal," New York University Constitutional Law professor Burt Neuborne said. "There's also no doubt in my mind that if some newspaper reporter hacked into a telephone call and discovered a serious criminal conspiracy going on, that reporter would be thought of as a good reporter."

Neuborne, the former National Legal Director of ACLU, said news organizations are largely self-policing and create their own ethical standards.

Murdoch’s U.S.-based tabloid the New York Post said in a statement that it adheres to the “highest standards of ethics and integrity” in its newsgathering.

"The New York Post does not pay for stories, does not employ private investigators to pursue stories and complies with the law in all its practices,” the paper said in a statement.

At the New York Times, for example, reporters are told never to misrepresent themselves – most of the time. A copy of the paper's ethics policy is posted online.

“At the Times we don't violate the law," George Freeman, the newsroom lawyer for the Times said. "We identity ourselves as Times reporters unless there is a very good reason and there’s permission not to."

There were two times when reporters at the paper deliberately did not identify themselves: when reporting on racism in real estate and investigating conditions of a sweatshop, Freeman said.

The Associated Press also posts its ethical standards online.

"We don't misidentify or misrepresent ourselves to get a story," the guidelines read. "When we seek an interview, we identify ourselves as AP journalists."

Neuborne, the NYU professor, said competition to break stories has led to unethical behavior but the proliferation of bloggers or "people who claim to be carrying out the job of the press" could lead to a call for more legal restrictions on the press and "more legal sanctions."

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