Ethics Must Come from the Heart As Well As the Head

MUD day 11:

For anyone interested in the ethics of new-media journalism, the past 24 hours have been painfully instructive. For me, it’s been a reminder that in any ethical decision, you have to be guided by your heart as well as your head.

The episode began when, in response to an inquiry by a Columbia Journalism Review reporter, the Poynter Institute’s director of publications, Julie Moos, wrote a blog post criticizing Poynter’s celebrated columnist Jim Romenesko. According to Moos, Romenesko had a years-long habit of insufficiently attributing quoted comments. The episode concluded with Romenesko’s resignation, several months ahead of a planned retirement.

For those unfamiliar with these events, Nieman Lab’s Mark Coddington provides a superb overview. But the gist of the story is this: in summarizing what was written in other publications—essentially all he does or claims to do—Romenesko sometimes did not put quotation marks around verbatim quotes. For Moos, this was grounds not for dismissal, but a well-meaning but severe and public hand slapping. For almost everyone in journalism, her comments were an undeserved and self-important rebuke.

I admit to feeling some sympathy for Moos. The current climate of scandal mongering and blame placing make any public ethical decision difficult; no matter what she did, a large number of people would have second-guessed her.

I’m also very uncomfortable with the failure to use quotation marks around verbatim borrowings. When Steve Buttry, for whom I have boundless admiration and respect, argues that Romenesko’s fault was simply a punctuation problem, I find myself in the rare position of questioning his call. Leaving out a comma or semicolon can mean a difference between clarity and obscurity; leaving out a quotation mark can mean the difference between an original insight and blatant theft. I know that I’m nitpicking, and agree that Romenesko was absolutely not stealing. My point here is not to claim Buttry is wrong, but to demonstrate my mixed feelings.

I’m certain that Moos had similarly mixed feelings in deciding how to handle the discovery she was handed so unexpectedly. But it’s clear that she overreacted in reaching for what Theodore Bernstein used to call an atomic flyswatter. Like many a well-meaning but misguided official, she felt obliged to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for ethics. But in ethics, zero tolerance is, by its nature, unethical.

In a situation like this, the question that should be asked is not “What rules were broken?” but “Who was hurt?” The fact is, Romenesko’s occasional failure to use quotation marks hurts no one. It was not an issue of plagiarism, which does hurt people. As many of his supporters have pointed out, no one Romenesko ever covered has objected to his attribution habits. Their heart tells them that Moos’s reaction was wrong. I suspect hers does as well.

Neither the heart nor the head is an infallible guide; every moral decision involves some balance between the two. This time, Julie Moos got the balance wrong.