Excellence and Ethics in the Newsroom The Honolulu Advertiser October 14, 2009 Kevin Kawamoto Reader Submitted
A 60-year-old advertising executive is holding his ex-wife hostage in a house they once shared in a suburb of Hartford, Conn. Police have surrounded the house and are clearing the neighborhood. The hostage-taker demands that the news media not report about the situation, but the Hartford Courant publishes a story on its newspaper Web site about what is happening. The hostage-taker learns of this and threatens to blow up the house he and his ex-wife are in if the newspaper does not take the story off its Web site.
Should the newspaper comply with the hostage-taker's demands?
Jon Ebinger presented this and other scenarios at a journalism ethics workshop Oct. 10 at the University of Hawaii's Campus Center. Ebinger, an award-winning Washington, D.C.-based TV producer and editor, led workshop participants through a series of ethical dilemmas, asking them to list the pros and cons of a decision as they collectively considered the right course of action.
Did the Hartford Courant remove the article about the hostage situation from its Web site? "They didn't," Ebinger said. "They stuck with it."
Not everyone agreed with that decision.
Ebinger handed out an article from the Columbia Journalism Review, a magazine geared to journalism professionals. Greg Marx, writing for the magazine's "Darts & Laurels" column, said editors should have removed the article from its Web site until they were satisfied that the story would not endanger human lives. "Professional tenets against pulling a story are important," Marx wrote, "but they are not absolute."
Like most ethical dilemmas, the decision about whether or not to remove the hostage article was not based on the law i.e., whether an action is legal or illegal but rather on interpretations of professional codes of conduct and the often debatable questions of what is right and wrong. Those questions require thoughtfulness and open discussion, even after the fact. The Columbia Journalism Review article said that the Courant has refused to talk about how it arrived at its decision to leave the article on the Web, which is "contrary to the ethos of transparency that all news organizations have an interest in."
Ebinger referred workshop participants to the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics to use as a guide for ethical decision-making. He recited them out loud: "Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable."
Ebinger reminded journalists in the audience that people may judge an entire news organization based on the real or perceived unethical behavior of a single employee. Journalists, for example, need to be careful about financially supporting political candidates. The public could interpret a journalist's campaign contribution to be a display of personal favoritism toward that candidate or that candidate's party and thus bias the journalist's reporting. That may not be the case, but even the perception of impartiality could damage a journalist's credibility and, by extension, the credibility of his or her news organization.
One audience member asked whether her husband's campaign contributions could be a reflection in the public's eye of her own political leanings and leave her vulnerable to criticisms of impartiality. Another audience member responded that his former news organization had rules prohibiting spouses from making campaign contributions, even if the spouse was not employed by the news organization. If a news organization does not have such a rule, Ebinger suggested that spouses should at least have their own checking account from which to make campaign contributions to make it clear that the money is not coming out of a joint account shared with the journalist. Ebinger said he does not contribute to political campaigns, even if the candidates are longtime friends.
The workshop had audience members talking about a variety of personal and professional situations and news events that posed ethical dilemmas. Some of these situations and events were easier than others to determine right from wrong behavior. Journalists should not use their positions, for example, to get special favors or freebies. They should not pay for interviews. They should not voluntarily restrict their freedom to report and ask questions unless there is a compelling reason to do so.
Other cases required more discussion.
Should a local television station have played a 911 recording of a 7-year-old girl describing her mother's fatal shooting? Should the Associated Press have distributed a photograph taken in Afghanistan of a fatally wounded Marine even after the Marine's father and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked AP not to publish it? Should journalists in Arizona have complied with a media blackout after state officials asked them not to report about a prison take-over in which corrections officers were taken hostage?
The cases were real, and the decisions were controversial. Ebinger suggested that what is important is how journalists and editors arrived at those decisions. Often there are pros and cons when deciding how to respond to such questions. Which column the pros or the cons provides the more convincing arguments? Is the decision to air a 911 recording necessary, or can the story be told without it?
Ebinger referred audience members to the Poynter Institute's Web site www.poynter.org -- for a large collection of resources on journalism ethics. It is there that he discovered a simple question that can be used when confronted by an ethical dilemma in the newsroom: "If asked, would you be able to clearly explain your actions?" If not, Ebinger said, you may want to re-think your decision.
The October 10 workshop was the last in a series of talks that Ebinger gave in Hawaii over a period of four days, all sponsored by the Carol Burnett Fund for Responsible Journalism Ethics Programs and the Society of Professional Journalists UH Manoa Student Chapter.