Chicago Like Camelot image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Camelot was that legendary place where high ideals were honored and celebrated by King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Centuries-old fables tell that story, which also was told by Broadway and Hollywood.

In a small way, Chicago was like Camelot. Long ago, the Chicago Headline Club gave Ethics in Journalism Awards to Chicago area reporters, editors or news organizations that distinguished themselves in journalism by performing in an ethical and sensitive manner. 

You could imagine them as modern knights in shining armor.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics defines ethical conduct, in case you were wondering.

Like Camelot, the ethics awards also faded into history. Historians quarrel over whether Camelot really existed. But the ethics award did exist.

Walking the talk

It called upon anyone to nominate journalism candidates worthy of the award which honored those who “walk the talk” by doing the right thing.

“This means acting like a professional, taking into consideration the welfare of those we encounter in covering the news and the possible harm our reports might do to an individual or a community,” said the nominating form.

“It’s a tough line to walk, and is judged by our conduct. It means always asking ourselves if we are being fair and accurate.” 

Some might say this was too idealistic, too much to expect. Even laughable.

Chief among those critics was Michael Miner, media critic for The Chicago Reader. Miner was a savvy, street-smart writer who often wrote about the ethics award and the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in a caustic and dismissive way. He probably was typical of many hard-bitten journalists who wince and believe that journalism ethics is an oxymoron

Best solution

Miner wrote that the best solution to journalism’s intractable contradictions “was to build newsrooms no more than 100 feet from a bar.”

The media critic wrote several stories about me, ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists and AdviceLine. Actually, it could be said that Miner gave us more ink than anyone.

“Ethics? For Journalists? Is Casey Bukro Serious?” was the headline on a story he wrote in 1987, telling about my failed efforts to keep a sentence in the SPJ code of ethics that said: “Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards.” That part was stricken from the code, which I wrote 15 years earlier. I wanted the code to be more than words on paper, to make the code enforceable. SPJ leaders said paying attention to the code is entirely voluntary.

“Active censure may comport with a journalist’s temperament, but his inclination to police his own ranks is no sharper than a lawyer’s, a doctor’s or a cop’s,” Miner wrote. Some journalists might even consider it unconstitutional, he pointed out, contrary to the First Amendment.

Telling journalists

From the start, Miner had assumed that anyone who presumes to tell journalists what to do about ethics is a bit daft, silly or pretentious.

Miner zeroed in on AdviceLine shortly after it was created in 2001, offering a few snide comments, going so far as imagining reporters picking up a phone and saying, “Hello, sweetheart, Get me ethics.”

The man has a sense of humor and a soothing baritone voice on the telephone, teasing out information in a way that non-journalists might find disarming. Think of Morgan Freeman.

The story he wrote practically unhinged the AdviceLine team, which includes ethics experts who teach at universities. In other words, most were people not accustomed to being interviewed, especially by somebody like Miner who calls himself a critic. He was usually looking for ways to be critical.

Describing cases

After interviewing me, Miner told other members of the AdviceLine team that I described some of the calls from professional journalists asking for ethics advice and so should they. And they did.

I thought I was being careful about identifying callers or details that could not be disclosed under our confidentiality policy.

Then Miner’s story was published, and an uproar erupted. An AdviceLine team member emailed:

“I hardly know what to say about the extent to which confidences and commitments have been violated” in response to Miner’s cajoling questions.

Part of AdviceLine’s mission is to show what kinds of ethics problems confront professional journalists and the best advice for dealing with them. But AdviceLine offers confidentially to journalists who request it, so they and their news organizations must not be identified.

Sensitive world

Being new to this highly sensitive world of ethics public relations, some of the AdviceLine ethicists gave Miner more details than they should have under AdviceLine’s confidentiality policy. No names were revealed, but some locations were.

And it’s often a shock when people see their words in print, even when the words are true. Some journalists believed that nothing should be revealed about ethics cases, but that would frustrate AdviceLine’s mission to educate journalists and the public about journalism ethics. 

Describing actual ethics cases and how they were handled would show the public that journalists take ethics seriously, contrary to what they might think at a time when journalists are accused of “fake news.”

A learning experience

It was a learning experience for everyone involved, resulting in AdviceLine adopting more exacting rules for confidentiality. I thanked Miner for his contribution toward improving AdviceLine, which might have pained him.

It was a tumultuous beginning for AdviceLine.

It’s good for journalists, and ethicists too, to have unsympathetic, cold-eyed lampooners. Like it or not, their taunts and derision can be instructive, showing why idealists lose or can improve. Idealists also can say to hell with these critics and keep trying. Conventional wisdom is boring and would never have produced flying machines.

Fourteen years passed. By that time, I had retired from the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Headline Club gave an award to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for its journalism ethics blog. Miner was not impressed.

A richer life

“But as life is richer when Bukro’s around to disagree with, I’m pleased to report he hasn’t gone away,” wrote Miner at the time. That was in 2015.

By then, the Chicago Headline Club had discontinued giving ethics in journalism awards. Like Camelot, it was a distant memory, but a shining moment.

Makes me think of a line in the Lerner and Loewe musical: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

As all things connected with ethics, the ethics award was controversial, including why some of the winners were chosen. They had to be nominated to qualify.

Most journalists ethical

Some journalists argued that most journalists always perform ethically, and it was unfair to pick out just a few. I figured it was better than nothing. You can decide for yourself. 

In 1996, the first year ethics awards were presented, 19 journalists or media organizations in broadcast news, print news and print commentary were nominated. The winners:

Carol Marin was suspended from WMAQ-Channel 5 for objecting strongly to reading what she considered blatant plugs for sponsors while presenting the news.

Harris Meyer laid his job on the line for writing stories on Medicare and health-care reform that sometimes were contrary to American Medical Association policy. He was fired from American Medical News for insubordination.

Bill Rentschler, editor-in-chief and president of the weekly Voice Publications in Lake Forest, was cited for editorial integrity and a body of work spanning decades in columns and stories that tackled tough issues.

In 1997, Ethics in Journalism awards went to:

The Austin Voice, a Chicago weekly newspaper that became a target of threats and harassment for the first stories of police involvement with drug dealers and armed street gangs on Chicago’s West Side. The Austin Voice was nominated by two neighborhood groups.

John Lampinen, managing editor of the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, for refusing against intense pressure to print Richard Jewell’s name the day he was named but not charged as a suspect in a bombing at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Lampinen followed with a front page story on privacy and the public’s right to know.

Bill Lazarus and The Times of Northwest Indiana for tenacious coverage in exposing political connections in waste disposal despite a $10 million libel suit filed against them by an East Chicago hazardous waste firm. The paper persisted in the exposé and a jury later found Lazarus and The Times of Northwest Indiana innocent.

Carol Marin, for courage in journalism, by resigning from WMAQ-Channel 5 in a dispute with management over news values and hiring “trash talk” host Jerry Springer as commentator. (The station’s viewership plummeted after Marin left.)

In 1998, the ethics award went to Ron Magers, of WLS-Channel 7, for consistently showing ethics leadership in the newsroom throughout his career at WMAQ-Channel 5.

In 1999, five nominees were offered, but the winner was Nigel Wade, editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. Wade showed his abrasive side the previous year at the Chicago Headline Club’s annual awards banquet. The keynote speaker gave a speech telling what newspapers could do to be more ethical. Wade got up in the audience and said that newspapers that followed such advice would be as boring as the speaker. But that month, Wade went on to prove there’s nothing boring about being ethical.

On May 22, 1998, the Sun-Times printed a front page message to readers explaining that Wade refused to play the Springfield, Oregon, school shooting on the front page because the story might harm or frighten vulnerable children. The following day, the New York Times carried Wade’s op-ed piece explaining why he didn’t print the story on page one. Wade proved this was not a one-time gesture when he decided against playing the Littleton, Colorado, school shooting on the front page for the same reason.

The 2000 ethics award went to John Cherwa, the Chicago Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports, who turned back staff credentials to cover the Indianapolis 500 race. A Sports Illustrated staff writer had been denied such credentials because his coverage of auto racing was considered unfavorable. Cherwa said he took “a stand against a form of censorship by a sports organization.” Other newspapers followed Cherwa’s example, and the Indy Racing League reconsidered and gave credentials to the Sports Illustrated writer.

The 2001 ethics award went to Victor M. Crown, assistant editor of Illinois Politics Magazine, for his diligence in seeking guidance on fairness and balance on a story involving Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald and ethics in government. Crown posted all of his evidence in the case on a website so it could be scrutinized by journalists and the public, following advice from the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

In 2002, Carolyn Hulse, director of news reporting and writing at Columbia College in Chicago, got the award for resigning as interim chairwoman of the college’s journalism program to protest an attempt to name as acting dean of the school of media arts a person who had been fired at a Chicago newspaper for fabricating a story. Hulse said it was unacceptable for a person like that to teach journalism and be held up as a model for students.

In 2003, Mike Waters, Daily Southtown managing editor, and columnists Phil Arvia and Phil Kadner, won the award for their roles in challenging their newspaper’s decision to promote supporting U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf, which could tarnish the newspaper’s and staff’s reputation for objectivity.

Also in 2003, an ethics award went to the Chicago Tribune for taking steps to enforce its newsroom ethics code, forcing the resignation of columnist Bob Greene for inappropriate sexual conduct.

In 2004, Virginia Gerst took the award. She resigned as an arts and entertainment editor for the Glenview-based Pioneer Press newspaper, saying the integrity of the editorial process was violated when the publisher assigned an editor, who Gerst described as a marketing director, to write a restaurant review to replace one already written. Gerst quit after 27 years with Pioneer Press.

In 2005, anchor/reporter Anna Davlantes of WMAQ-Channel 5 and Chicago Sun-Times publisher John Cruickshank won ethics awards. Davlantes was cited for courage and professionalism in reporting the sale of the Village of Bridgeview golf dome despite repeated threats and intimidation from a man involved in the sale who wanted her to stop her investigation. Friends and relatives urged Davlantes to drop the story. Instead, she produced five reports on the sale, which involved a man who said he was forced to sell his property.

Cruickshank discovered in 2004 that the Sun-Times had overstated its circulation for years. He urged company officials to go public with his discovery. Some of them feared that would kill the newspaper. Cruickshank said the future of the newspaper depended on doing the right thing, and correcting an unethical practice. Under his leadership, parent company Hollinger International disclosed the overstated circulation figures and set aside $27 million to reimburse advertisers.

In 2006, no ethics award was given. Contest judges decided that year’s nominees failed to demonstrate the high standards required for the award.

Story ends

And that’s where the Ethics in Journalism Award story ends, after nine years. It became dormant, and stays that way.

Looking back on it, giving awards strictly on the basis of ethics was difficult. Often those nominating reporters for the award cited forceful reporting resulting in changes. Other awards recognize that kind of work. 

The ethics awards honored journalist who made personal sacrifices and often took an unpopular stand. That is more difficult to find. And all nominations were submitted to a panel of judges, who do not always agree on what is ethically laudable. It boils down to humans making decisions.

Zeal for ethics faded in a time of media staff cuts and disappearing newspapers, some say at the rate of two a week. Ethics takes a certain amount of boat-rocking, not something young  journalists eager to keep their jobs want to do.

Lost newspapers

The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University predicts that by the end of 2024, the U.S. will have lost a third of its newspapers and almost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists since 2005.

Into that bleak landscape came another threat: Generative artificial intelligence able to create news content with little human involvement. Medill reports that “could be the final nail in the local news coffin.”

Medill is careful to point out that this new technology also could bring benefits, creating new tools to improve storytelling and to monetize content. It also could free human journalists to devote their time to more original enterprise reporting.

But the potential downsides are worrying.

“Given how some chain owners have prioritized cost-cutting and profit-making over sustained journalistic quality, what is to stop them from replacing more reporters and editors with robots?” asked Medill. “Can news consumers be relied upon to discern between human-reported journalism and machine-generated content – and does it matter?”

Artificial intelligence makes mistakes and could be prone to spreading misinformation and disinformation, either by accident or design.

In these times of chaotic technological transition driven by artificial intelligence and robots, some might see ethics as a mere luxury. Others might see it as a way out of the chaos.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Visit the Ethics AdviceLine blog for more.