Journalistic Ethics

If you follow the news, you might have heard that two Dartmouth profs were murdered over the weekend. Nobody really knows much beyond that. It’s very strange on campus right now, to say the least.

About the only thing that the majority of campus can agree on is that we want the press to go away. This puts me in an interesting position because I am a member of the press. (albeit not actively writing for a paper at the moment.) There have been points in time in the past few days where I just… well, wanted to get into a serious discussion about ethics.

Some of the things that they’re doing that are, in my opinion, unethical:

-Trying to harrass students into commenting.

-Going in the dorms (which is illegal) and asking utterly loaded questions. “So, do you feel safe on campus knowing that someone was brutally murdered? Are you aware of any nighttime visitors to the dorms?”

-Standing outside the German House and harassing it’s residents. (One of the profs was chair of the German Department.)

-Speculation. They’re painting us as the close knit, quaint Ivy League school that’s been shattered to the core. It gets to your head. I’ve never been so terrified walking home by myself as I was this evening.

I’m not trying to be sheltered. I know that news is a business like any other, and these are the things with which papers are sold. People seem to want the quote from the grieving family, the gore of the day, the important fact that just might save your life.

I think that news should be truth, though, and I have a hard time accepting ambush tactics as truth. To me, journalism is telling a story, telling it well, and telling it right. Freedom of the press doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk. (As I write this, I’m pretty sure I’ll never get a big paper job with this attitude.)

Teeming millions, what would you consider journalistic ethics? Is there a balance that can be struck between telling the story accurately and crossing a line? What is the line? What place does ethics have in journalism?

There is an interesting book you should read on this topic, “Breaking the News” by James Fallows. There is a movement in some of the smaller newspapers towards something called “public journalism.” This is where the newspaper works with the community to find out what it wants to know about and reports it. Unfortunately, most of the larger journalistic sources have outright rejected and mocked this development.

As for journalistic ethics…that went out the door with any other kind of ethics that might have existed within society. The idea now is to get your by-lines and get your stories. Editors want the gory stuff, and they want to scare people to sell papers. Utterly unethical, yes…but so long as it helps to sell papers or get ratings, it is here to stay. Unfortunately.

Sigh. Cite, please, that there are no ethics left within society.

But prove it in another thread, don’t hijack this one. Thanks.

My roommate, who is a journalism teacher, had this to say:

"There are certain rights, like the right to privacy, which should be respected, and may come in to play in this case.

"However, if every journalist decided ‘not to be a jerk,’ (her interpretation: do something a little shady) then we wouldn’t have the great stories of the last century - Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the Food Lion expose, etc.

“I tell my students (re journalistic ethics) that here’s what they should do, but that they should remember that ultimately their job is to serve the people…”

Which it does not sound to me like the press are doing at Dartmouth right now.

Frankly, I think that for me the line is drawn where I would interfere with someone’s emotional well-being. But it’s a hard thing to say, too. I find the current “in your face” school of journalism completely offensive, and it’s the reason I don’t watch the network news, and seldom read the paper.

Not that I’m a great fan of this type of reporting - but it’s not clear to me what ethical lapse is on display here, apart possibly from violating school policy by going into dormitories.

How exactly were students harassed into making comments?

The questions you list seem like fair ones.

OK, speaking as someone who is sitting in a newspaper office as I key this in, there may be a real difference in the exercise of journalistic ethics based on market size. Being in the biz for the last 12 and a half years (or eighth of a century, as I like to think of it) as ad salesman and columnist on first a small weekly and now a small daily, I can assure you that ethical issues are quite thoroughly debated in our newsroom. (And as a member of the editorial board, I get to take direct part.)

At least in the small markets, we do in microcosm what the society does in whole, debating liberal and conservative viewpoints, trying to balance freedom of the press with responsibility to all viewpoints. It isn’t always easy, and we don’t always succeed, but we give it a hell of a go and are bothered when we feel we have performed poorly.

** andygirl /b], As far as intrusion in times of personal sorrow, that’s an area in which we try to go out of the way to exhibit compassion. Sure, it’s a lot easier in a small (11,000)town with no competition, but it also gives us a lot clearer conscience.

And, as a practical matter, people in town know that if they give us an interview at a difficult time, we will treat them with respect. And that makes it easier for them to grant those interviews.

Hope that may shed some light. Hey, we’re not all Giraldos in the news business…

This happened to one of my friends today. She was in a study group with about five other people. A reporter with a camera walks up.

“Do you have any comments on the murders?”
“Any comment at all on how it’s affecting Dartmouth?”
“No. We’re trying to do work. Please leave us alone.”

Continue with variation for several more minutes. Finally, the reporter turned on the camera. “Now do you have any comment?”

Finally, one of the kids asked quietly if they would comment, would they be left alone to study. Two of them did, and she left.

Several reporters have been arrested by campus security in the past few days for simply not leaving students alone. Stuff like that.

Having spent my share of time in a newsroom. . .

andygirl, if your account is accurate, then yes they are behaving unethically. Journalists are not empowered with the right to browbeat (non-public) citizens into responding, no matter how much the editors want compelling “film”

My sympathies on the tragedy your campus is going through. What you’ve described is a big part of why I left the news business. (underscore “business”)

Can’t dispute that when it comes to the major media, but that’s not really the case in most communities.

The major level is so freakishly competitive, if a reporter were to get scooped by a rival media outlet on anything even resembling a consistent basis (including for refusing to browbeat people for ‘hot’ stories like the Dartmouth slayings) that reporter would be history toot sweet.

I do not aspire to ever reach a level where I’m part of the pack in pack journalism - 15 to 20 people all chasing each other’s tails.

*Originally posted by Milossarian *

And neither do I. I was a reporter for seven years. I learned a lot. Remember when Richard Jewell was falsely accused of the Atlanta Olympics bombing? At first, I thought the guy asked for the scrutiny. A veteran in the newsroom challenged me, and I came to realize she was right. At its best, journalism can uncover the excesses of government and teach us about the human condition.

At its worst, it resembles pirannha chasing a chicken leg. The Richard Jewell story was propelled by a news source, and all the media fed off of it. In the end, Jewell should have never been subjected to this scrutiny.

In my experience, TV reporting is the worst. Do you know what constitutes a TV story? Good footage. Without it, a story’s dead. With it, a duck crossing the road takes 30 seconds of the news hole. That reporter who harassed your friends needed footage, and she probably didn’t have anything else interesting. The reporters and editors involved could care less about their responsibilities to the public. It’s all about ratings.

I wish more cities would employ a committee to review journalism ethics. And the results of the reviews should be made as public as the original stories. Reporters should know that if they act irresponsibly, they will be taken to task. Honest mistakes should be expected, but blatant disregard of ethics shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, I don’t think this would address pushy, arrogant reporters from hounding possible sources.

I’m leaving in Washington in a matter of days to begin a newspaper reporting internship. My biggest fear is seeing reporters so obsessed with getting stories that they’ve ceased to be human.

My school’s journalism program has a required ethics class, along with at least a week or two of ethics taught in every reporting class. I am very glad that it’s run that way. “Pack journalism” is horrible and does far more harm to the profession than good. My excellent advanced newswriting professor taught us story after story from her career where avoiding the pack got her a better story than being a part of it.

The Dartmouth community is grieving right now. While any good reporter should ask questions to as many people as possible, and should ask about campus safety, a good reporter will also walk away the instant someone says they don’t want to talk about it. And they’re probably all asking the worst question that can be asked to those grieving: “How do you feel?” I will knock down the camera or the notebook of the first reporter who asks me that, not only for being an insensitive prick, but also for disgracing a profession that I love.

The Press is the only professional group explicitly mentioned in a CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. But many in it have no idea how awesome a privelege that is and what kind of responsibility it places upon its members. When your profession is granted special rights over any other, when your very office space is legally protected from police searches, you have a tremendous obligation not only to your readers, but to those that preceeded you, to act ethically.

Now, most journalists I have witnessed are actually pretty ethical in their tactics. You have to be a jerk sometimes, but that’s usually only when you’re dealing with something that the public should know (like Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, Food Lion). If the public will not benefit, you have no right being a jerk. Knowing how one person is grieving serves no inherent public purpose. Back off and let them grieve. In cases like this, there are always plenty of people who will talk freely without being badgered.

TV reporters are often forced to forego ethics because TV journalism is so insanely fast-paced and NEEDS compelling visuals. A newspaper reporter often has hours to nurture a story and to ease quotes out of people, not force them.

Really, we’re not all that bad. Thing is, bad journalists are usually the loudest ones as well. Watching your local FOX affiliate will show you that much.

I apologize if I gave the impression that I meant that ALL media sources are like that, in fact, many studies have been shown that there is a significant difference in the tactics and outlooks of local media sources as opposed to major, national ones.

However, confining my comments to the major sources, it is nice that journalistic ethics are being taught…the problem is that some journalists feel that the only way to reach the top is to ignore those ethics and do whatever they can to get a story.

Any journalist that can ignore those temptations and do his/her job in a responsible, ethical manner deserves to be commended IMHO.

I worked as a paper stuffer in my hometown’s local paper. I can tell you that local media is not always ethical.

I can recall two incidents in particular. In one, a girl who was a prom princess and salutarian of her class, learned that her name was going to be printed in the police blotter after being arrested for trespassing in a casino. She contacted the editor and asked the paper to reconsider and the editor refused. The editor then talked to her staff about how much she hated that girl and her family.

The girl was 17, her arrest should have been part of her juvenile record and her identity protected by the paper.

In another, the paper printed the name of a rape victim and then spent several editorials defending it’s decision. I left for college at about that time and never learned the outcome of that incident.

I think that the ethics of any news agency will be determined in large part by supervisors. In this case, the editor had no regard for ethics, hired people who felt the same, and encouraged rule bending.

The ‘news’ has already been printed. They are now after the fluff. The ‘how do feel’, average Joe on the street, reaction-type reporting, that turns my stomach and makes me yell at the screen and turn it off. It’s not dramatic enough that people died. They have to turn it into a heart-wrentching soap story.

I don’t think it’s a problem of journalistic ethics. Hey, if we as a news market didn’t eat this shit up, they wouldn’t print it. They’re giving us what we have show we want to buy.

So it’s our fault. :frowning:

In this case, since the reporter repeatedly refused to buzz off on request, the best option would have been an announced intention to call security, with followup. (A boot in the shins would have been apropos, but might have been considered confrontational).

Don’t worry, such folk will be off on the trail of other carrion soon.

Spooge hits the nail on the head…journalism is a business, and as such, must give the people what it will watch, read, or act in some other manner that will generate some revenue for the business.

This response might stray a bit off the original OP of Dartmouth, but it still deals with journalism ethics.

First off, I must disagree with the example of Food Lion. The whole point of the story behind Food Lion was that there were hidden cameras which captured employee misconduct, rotting meat, etc. This brings up an entirely new set of ethics (should a news reporter be allowed to lie or misrepresent himself in order to get the story) but does not deal with media pushiness.

Secondly, I must also disagree with Neurotik when he says there is no such thing as journalism ethics anymore. Let me give two well known examples of ethical behavior. During the Cuban Missle Crisis, a writer of the Washington Post had a nearly complete story dealing with the situation and was ready to publish it. The White House contacted the editor of the paper and asked him to delay the publication until after they had made their decision on how the situation would be handled.
Three days before the Unabomber’s shack was to be raided, CBS (I believe) knew the identity of the Theodore Kaczynski and was asked by the FBI not to air the story. They complied.

They didn’t have to. In each of these examples they could have screamed “freedom of the press!” but they didn’t.

So getting back to Dartmouth, I think that, from what andygirl is describing, that is unethical behavior. Yes, the public has a right to know. But that must also be coupled with a question journalists must ask themselves: “do they need to know it from this source?” There are thousands of people on Dartmouth with the exact same expertise on the subject. I’m sure more than a few are quite willing to give interviews. When someone says they don’t want to be interviewed, that’s it. End of discussion. The reason is because that person has no information that’s crucial to the outcome of the story.

Spooje said:

This doesn’t have to be so. As it’s been stated, the press has a responsibility to uncover truth in a responsible manner. Good reporting is compelling reporting. You don’t have to resort to poor ethics to make a story. You have to be a good reporter. A balanced, well-done story is much better than a manufactured piece of tripe.

Once, I made Spooje’s argument to the same veteran reporter I referred to in my previous post here. She scoffed. Her reasoning: You shouldn’t just shrug your responsibility with the argument, Oh well, this is what they want.

And yet, the sad fact is that they DO shrug their responsibility for the ratings. Examples abound. Remember the 24/7 coverage of the OJ trial? Remember the reporting of presidential sex “scandals?” On what basis did they grab the top spot in headlines? The only reason is that that is what got ratings. There were arguably more important things that affected the public’s life more than these things, however, they were not reported with such fanfare.

There’s a difference between sleezy and unethical. Sex and violence sells. It’s a sad fact, but it does. That’s why Fleiss’s black book got so much coverage and why you couldn’t swing an ill fitting glove around without hitting a reporter for the OJ Simpson trial. But…was that unethical? Overkill, yes. But unethical? How?

The reporters at Dartmouth aren’t being unethical by just being there. It’s a news story! They could stick around for another year until the students got so sick of them that they decided that killing news reporters would make an interesting story and it STILL wouldn’t be an unethical choice on the part of the media. HOW they go about conducting their interviews makes it unethical, not the very fact that they are conducting interviews.

Even saying that they were bumping out more newsworthy stories doesn’t make it unethical. Merely ill-advised from a journalistic point of view.

If I had a dime for every time some self-justifying reporter uttered this…

Your job is to provide copy (or tape) that will enable your outlet to move more newspapers or ads. Nothing more. All else is vanity. If you can report the truth and expose scandal or move the cause of justice forward that should be considered a bonus. And it’s a bonus because it’s not a requirement.

I’ve been in the media for years, both covering and selling. I’m currently Director of Marketing for a magazine publisher in the DC metro area. Prior to this I worked for a news outlet that specialized in reporting on what the national and local media was covering.

Yes, I agree that there should be ethics in journalism. But what should those ethics be? Is your responsibility to the ‘truth’ (such as it is), is it to ‘the public’ (such as they are) or is it to your employer? If you decide that the truth is more important than the person who signs your checks you should be prepared to look for a job.

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for you Andygirl or for your fellow students. But that reporter has to deliver tape to his or her producer.

The proper response to such actions, however, is to wait for the camera to roll tape and start repeating the word, “fuck” over and over until they go away. Perhaps you and your friends could chant it. Sort of a gregorian thing.

Look, this is coming across as completely cynical, and I know that. But I don’t see any other way to combine the business end of journalism with the ‘responsibility to the truth’ end. If you want to focus on that, go work for NPR or something. But there ain’t a lot of those slots.

The “bubble-headed bleached blonde” who can “tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye” is fulfilling her ethical responsibility to her employers. That doesn’t make her a bad person, just an honest one.

But, from time to time you can find a good situation where your editor/producer is interested in getting the truth, even where it won’t move more papers. That’s worth its weight in gold.

Andygirl, if you pursue a career in journalism I wish you all the luck in the world and I hope you find the right situation for you. Even when it’s inherently hypocritical being in the media is great fun.