Did Brian Williams Break the Journalism Code of Ethics?

Brian Williams is best known for the ten years he spent as an anchor for NBC Nightly News. However, Williams was recently suspended from his position for six months for “misrepresent[ing] events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003.”

Williams stated on a Nightly News broadcast in January of 2015 that he was aboard a military helicopter that was hit by an rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and forced to land. Twelve years prior, in 2003, he stated that the helicopter in front of him was hit. Similarly, and contradictory too, in 2007, he said “...I looked down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us, and hit the chopper in front of us.”

The “misinterpretations” of the events in Iraq are the main occurrence that lead to Williams' suspension, however with this recent controversy some other inconsistent stories have surfaced as well.

Williams stated that during his time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he watched a man commit suicide in a 2014 interview. However, in 2005, he stated that they had heard a story of a man committing suicide. He also stated he was there when the Brandenburg wall came down, but sources state that he didn’t even arrive until the day after, November 10th. Lastly, Williams stated that he flew into Baghdad with Seal Team Six, however a command spokesman stated that the SEALs “do not embed journalist”.

The Journalism Code of Ethics, written by the Society of Professional Journalists, states as follows:

  • Seek Truth and Report It: “Journalists should be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”
  • Minimize Harm: “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects, and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”
  • Act Independently: “Journalist should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”
  • Be Accountable: “Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers, and each other.”

Did Brian Williams seek the truth and report it? I’d go with a resounding “no”. Brian Williams was not honest, I believe he made up the aforementioned stories.

Did he minimize harm? This one’s a little less obvious. I cannot personally think of anyone he directly harmed with his original statements. However, the backlash of his false statements on the journalism community were certainly harmful. Additionally, his statements about being “shot down by an RPG” could (and this could be a stretch) be considered “war- mongering”. This statement could have angered Americans and further added to the hate against Iraqis.

Did he act independently? This one is tough as well. Although the SEALs stated that Williams did not in fact fly with them, if he had this would have been against the code. Under the rule of “Act Independently”, journalists must refuse special treatment. Flying with Seal Team Six would be considered special treatment as no one is allowed to do that.

Lastly, was Williams accountable? No. Brian Williams lied. However, part of being accountable is admitting to your mistakes. Williams did admit that he was not aboard a helicopter that was struck down by an RPG.

So one out of four isn’t too bad, is it Mr. Williams? *crickets* So yes, I believe Brian Williams broke the Journalism Code of Ethics and apparently NBC did too due to his suspension.

Sources: 1,2,3,4
Photo Sources: 1, 2, 3