Several journalists have been accused lately of playing fast and loose with the rules. But a lot of these “rules” aren’t rules at all – they’re more like guidelines…
Ethics in Journalism: A Primer
Of course, there’s some wiggle room in those ethics codes – which sometimes leads to some serious lapses in judgment.
The point is, some rules in journalism are clear – the ones founded on honesty.
For starters, you don’t make up fake sources or stories or situations or anything. Don’t write anything false, ever, especially about someone else. You will get caught.
And then you will get shamed, fired, sued – or all three.
You should also never plagiarize, which is taking all or part of someone else’s story and calling it your own.
But not every guideline is so apparent. Sometimes the lines are blurry. That’s where it gets interesting – and controversial.
What Would You Do? The Black and White Edition
Let’s start with two easy scenarios. We’ll get to the tougher ones next.
Is it okay to assume – and report – that Jennifer Aniston is pregnant, based on an apparent “bump” in her clothes?
(A) Yes, that bump is totally obvious and that giant coat is clearly hiding … something.
(B) No, you’d have to confirm that with her and Justin.
The Cape Cod Times reporter Karen Jeffrey admitted to fabricating some of her work, and she’s been at the Cape Cod paper for over 30 years. When looking back, editors were unable to find at least 69 sources. Should she have been fired (she is reportedly no longer at the Times)?
(A) No, the details she made up were minor, so, no big deal.
(B) Uh, yes! It is never okay to fabricate a story, no matter how desperate (or lazy) you are. Jeffrey deserved to get fired.
The answers to both questions are, not surprisingly, B.
And …The Grey Area
These are all real events that have occurred recently. And there’s no right or wrong answer. That’s why these situations and questions are so compelling. You decide where you stand. And we’re warning you now: much of this material deals with violence or sex.
New York Post freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi snapped pictures on a subway platform just before a man who had been pushed onto tracks was killed by an oncoming train. He said he was trying to alert the conductor with his flash, but then he sold the photos to The Post, which published them on the cover with the headline “DOOMED: Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.” Was Abbasi, The Post, or both wrong here?
(A) Abbasi was wrong. He should have tried harder to save the man. And he should not have sold the photos to a newspaper.
(B) The Post was wrong. The editors should definitely not have published such a dreadful and private moment – especially with a lurid front-page headline.
(C) Both A and B.
(D) What happened is terrible, but terrible things happen all the time and journalists document them and publish them on the front page. This story is newsworthy – it’s poignant and heart-wrenching. Nothing wrong here.
After Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend and himself, NBC Sports commentator Bob Costas spoke out on air against handgun violence. Was this appropriate in the middle of a football game? And is it okay for a sports commentator to express a controversial opinion about guns on national television?
Watch what Costas said before you answer >>
(A) Yes, it was a relevant, timely way to bring attention to gun violence in America, a really serious issue. It wasn’t wrong for Costas to speak his mind.
(B) No, I want to watch my football in peace. Sports commentators are there to talk about sports. Let news anchors and political pundits talk about things like gun control.
A columnist for Temple University’s student newspaper wrote a column about how men should behave when women turn into monsters during their monthly period. Should the Temple News have published this opinion piece?
(A) Yes, there is something called the First Amendment that allows anyone to publish their opinions, no matter how offensive or bizarre they might be to some.
(B) No, this was gross and unnecessary and seemed like an excuse to insult women. Newspapers have to have standards. They don’t publish everything, and Temple News shouldn’t have published this.
The Tampa Bay Times published a profile of a woman suffering from “persistent genital arousal syndrome,” detailing her struggles and two attempts at suicide. A day after the story was posted, she committed suicide. Should the paper be held accountable?
Read the paper’s account of the tragedy before you answer >>
(A) Yes, it was obvious that she was on the edge of suicide and this article might push her over the edge. (B) No, it’s not the paper’s fault.
TMI alert! A Berkeley student recently published a first-hand account of her sexcapades in the school’s library in the Daily Californian. Some were grossed out. Others were just plain bored by the tired sex-in-the-library cliche. Was this okay to publish?
(A) Yes, it was okay to publish. Sex is part of modern life, and the piece was genuinely entertaining.
(B) No, I really don’t want to think about that while I’m working on my research paper. It’s inappropriate and the newspaper should have standards of decency.
Okay, last one: radio show DJ’s in Australia called the hospital where Kate Middleton and her royal fetus were undergoing medical care, pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, to get the scoop. An unlucky nurse believed them and proceeded to divulge some information the press would not have known otherwise. Was the radio show in the wrong?
UPDATE: The nurse who took the call and was duped by the DJ’s has apparently committed suicide.
Hear what they said before you answer >>
(A) Yes, that is an inappropriate invasion of the royal family’s privacy, and it’s not okay to lie to try to get information.
(B) Nope, that nurse should have known better, but anything they were told is fair game. It’s okay to cover your identity, even for a frivolous story.
Is your head spinning? Torn between answers? Not to worry. That’s how most of us feel.
If you care about journalistic rights and ethics, here are some things you can do.
Images used under Creative Commons licensing.