June 09, 2003 11:00 pm

Newspapers must

uphold ethics rules

The New York Times, once the icon of American journalism, is reviewing its ethics standards — or lack of them — and deciding how to pick up the pieces after it was discovered that a reporter fabricated sources and wrote lies and nobody knew it was going on. The Times' scandal appropriately has forced other newspapers to revisit — or in some cases implement — ethics policies.

THE TIMES has delivered a significant blow to American journalism. It appears that what columnist Jane R. Eisner called the "gold standard in American journalism'' became a victim of its own success, its own ego. But if the Times' credibility downfall has a positive twist, it's that the industry of which The Observer is a part will do all it can to clean up its act.

The Observer, as part of Western Communications Inc., based in Bend, has had an ethics policy in place for decades. In 1999, the Newsroom Standards and Ethics Guidelines were significantly strengthened under WesCom Editor-in-Chief John Costa. The guiding principle of the ethics policy is "fairness, honesty and freedom from improper influence.'' The policies "come from a deep and historic commitment by WesCom and its newspapers to the common good of the communities that we are privileged to serve and determined to advance. This is our deepest trust.''

SIMPLY PUT, THE scandal that rocked the New York Times would be unlikely to happen at a WesCom newspaper, though this summer the editor-in-chief and editors of the newspapers will be reviewing the policy in light of the Times scandal. Anonymous sources are not allowed in local stories except by approval of the editor-in-chief, and the identity and credibility of the source must be established.

The policy sets forth other rules: plagiarism is grounds for immediate termination, as are fabricating or falsifying information, posing under a fake identity, lying to a supervisor, concealing a serious conflict or trading influence; political activity is forbidden; staff members cannot write about a company, commodity or services in which they have a financial interest; and corrections will be printed on the first page of the section in which they occurred.

RUNNING CORRECTIONS can be a bit embarrassing, but considering the amount of information being processed daily, mistakes do occur. Hardly a week goes by that The Observer doesn't run one, two or three — sometimes more — corrections. In 2002, The Oregonian averaged 57 corrections a month. Setting the record straight is imperative, no matter how embarrassing admitting the mistakes might be.

Newspaper people take their jobs seriously, but as with any profession, occasionally reporters and editors come along who test the limits of credibility. The issue for newspapers is to make sure policies are in place to catch those who have no ethics.