Journalism and journalists have received some “black eyes” in the past several years, often for activities found ethically or legally problematic: plagiarism, alteration of photographs and tapes, investigating topics considered private, employing anonymous sources, or revealing material the government would like to keep secret.
While some of these activities are clearly unethical, many fall into a grey area where seasoned, experienced journalists disagree as to their propriety.
You will complete a semester-long course on “Legal and Ethical Issues in Journalism” in your first semester, which is designed to alert you to some of the potential pitfalls. No one expects you to arrive as a master of the nuances of libel law, copyright, or even the ethical minefields you might face in what seem the most straightforward of stories.
But you can begin to develop “ethical antennae” that enable you to become more sensitive to the issues you will encounter throughout your career as a journalist, whatever the medium, and as to how you might approach them. And . . .you just may face one of these issues on your first assignment for Craft! Here are some ways to start.
1. Several news outlets employ an ombudsman (or public editor or readers’ representative) to examine and report on stories that have provoked some question as to whether they should have been published or about the appropriateness of the conduct of reporters and editors who prepare those stories. The New York Times just a year ago appointed its fourth public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, whose column appears twice monthly in the Opinion section of the weekly “Sunday Review” section. He also has a blog where he discusses additional issues, http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/, and a Twitter feed, @thepubliceditor. Take a look at his columns and think about the subjects that he considers. Would you, if you were the editor, have run the story he’s discussing? What could have been done before publication to avoid the ethical (or legal) issue he’s considering?
2. Another good resource is a Knight Citizen News Network module, “Top 10 Rules for Limiting Legal Risk,” developed by our own Professor Geanne Rosenberg. Several of the rules have exercises and quizzes included so you can assess how much you already know and what you need to pay attention to. While the rules are aimed at citizen journalists, they are a good reminder and review for all journalists.
3. A persistent issue that has cropped up for reporters and editors has been how much personal information is relevant to reveal about a candidate for public office, and whether the conduct has to be recent to be an important reflection of the candidate’s character. This will become an especially relevant issue as the 2012 election nears. Take a look at this case study from the Society of Professional Journalists and see what you think is fair and ethical in this situation. How would you pursue it if you were the reporter or editor just weeks before Election Day? Does your opinion change at all in light of this same congressman’s subsequent resignation from Congress last month amid allegations of sexual misconduct with a teenage girl?
4. Another good exercise is to keep an eye on the Corrections column of your local newspaper. Are there systemic changes in reporting or editing policies or procedures that might have avoided some of those errors or misleading statements?
5. One issue that has assumed a particularly high profile this summer has been the legality and ethics of the reporting and investigative tactics used by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation newspapers in Great Britain. Keep a close eye on this story as it continues to develop to see whether the problems reflected a tone set from the top or just some rogue journalists, whether the tactics used in the United Kingdom spilled over to his media holdings in the United States, and what the appropriate remedy is for journalism run amok.
You will not have all the answers to these ethical and legal dilemmas even when you leave the J-School, diploma in hand. But the earlier you start to become aware of the potential issues journalists inevitably face, and think about the consequences of your decisions, the more experience you will have to make these determinations when you’re on deadline and don’t have much time to think and discuss.