Commentary: Cain doesn't get that journalists' code of ethics is about asking questions

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramNovember 9, 2011 

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, engulfed in a growing sexual harassment controversy, tried to put the issue to rest Saturday following a one-on-one debate in Houston with rival Newt Gingrich.

Reporters tried to ask Cain about the allegations brought by three women that he had engaged in unwanted sexual behavior toward them while he headed the National Restaurant Association.

Cain stopped a D.C. journalist before he could finish his question by saying, "Don't even go there."

He issued an emphatic "No!" as the reporter politely queried, "Can I ask my question?"

The candidate then turned to his chief of staff and said, "Please send him the journalistic code of ethics."

More reporters certainly ought to read their own "Code of Ethics" -- something I'll talk more about in a moment -- but I would suggest that Cain also peruse the document, which can be found on the Society of Professional Journalists' website. It's obvious the candidate doesn't know what it says either.

In an attempt to put the issue behind him, and against the advice of his staff, Cain commented further.

"We are getting back on message," he declared. "End of story. Back on message. Everything has been answered."

As he would find out Monday, it was not the end. A fourth woman, saying she wanted "to give face and a voice" to those who couldn't or wouldn't speak publicly, accused Cain of inappropriate behavior in 1997 when she sought his help in getting a job.

Cain, who forcefully denies any wrongdoing, held a press conference Tuesday to address the issue. He'll likely be compelled to discuss it in upcoming Republican debates, regardless of the announced topics. During the press conference, while acknowledging journalists have a right to question him, he asked that the media "not bring my family into this."

While I have questions -- of the accusers and Cain -- I will not judge either. I'll let Republican voters try to sort it out.

But let me get back to Cain's flippant remark about getting a reporter a copy of the code of ethics.

Admittedly, too few journalists have read the code, the latest version of which was adopted 15 years ago. According to the Society of Professional Journalists' website, Sigma Delta Chi (the original name of the organization) "borrowed" its first Code of Ethics from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926.

"In 1973, Sigma Delta Chi wrote its own code, which was revised in 1984, 1987 and 1996," SPJ says.

No matter how many revisions there have been, it has been tough for the code to keep up with rapid changes in the world of "journalism," where anyone with a computer or cellphone can become a reporter, photographer and publisher.

Still, the code's principles help to govern -- although there's no governing body for enforcement -- the newsgathering practices of "conscientious journalists."

The current code lists 37 tenets under four topics: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; Be Accountable.

I haven't seen everything reported about the allegations against Cain, but of what I have observed I don't know of any unethical reporting.

Asking questions, even when a candidate doesn't want to hear them, is not out of bounds. Cain should know that, in the first three tenets under "Seek Truth and Report It," journalists are urged to test the accuracy of information from all sources, diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations and "Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability."

There are times when I'm embarrassed by my profession, and during elections I'm often irritated by a focus on trivia rather than substance.

But a candidate running for president had better get used to damaging allegations and the nagging journalists in pursuit of the truth.

He or she had better learn to deal with it. If they can't, they'd better get out of the race.

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