When you’re lost, depend on your moral compass
The last few years I’ve been part of a training seminar for young reporters on the topic of ethics. I tell them I’m helping to lead the seminar because I know everything there is to know about it.
It’s a joke, and most of the reporters get it.
There is no way to know everything about ethics, journalistically or otherwise, because new situations crop up almost every day. And even the old ones, well, there’s a lot of gray area.
The old rule for journalists is that they should never accept anything more valuable than a cup of coffee. With the price of a cup of coffee what it is these days, the rule should probably be revised: Just don’t accept anything.
Many years ago, as an intern at the Chicago Tribune, I was sitting in the newsroom a few days before Christmas when a mail clerk rolled in a cart full of gift-wrapped bottles of booze.
“Where did these come from?” demanded the city editor.
The clerk lifted a tag. “Compliments of City Hall,” he read.
“Get ’em out of here,” the city editor told him. “Send ’em back where they came from.”
For journalists, all we have is our integrity. The minute somebody thinks we can be bought, or have been bought, we lose all credibility.
But there are many dilemmas. What do you tell the little old lady who makes you a scarf because of the nice feature story you wrote on the Knitting Club? Don’t reporters and photographers often get free admission to concerts and sporting events in exchange for the publicity of covering them?
More often, it’s more subtle: If you print something nice about me now, I’ll give you a big scoop later. Or the opposite: If you just hold off for awhile, I’ll make sure you’re the first to know.
The best advice I can give the young journalists is this: If you’re an honest person, you know when you’ve crossed the line. You know when you’re uncomfortable accepting something because the person doing the giving is expecting something in return, even if it’s merely a sympathetic ear. Ultimately, you have to trust your own moral compass.
I’ve been thinking about ethics quite a bit lately because of the Abramoff scandal in Washington, followed by the hearing on the Fallon justice of the peace who was abusing his authority, followed by the news that some Nevada legislators had accepted free tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, followed by the incident this week in which the Sheriff’s Department accidentally released some evidence photos.
I’ve never run for office, so perhaps I can’t fully understand the contradictions that politicians must resolve. They have to go around asking people for money to fund their campaigns, yet they must maintain the integrity of the office and represent the best interests of all of their constituents.
So we hear elected officials and the people who make campaign contributions talking about “access.” If you give enough money, as I understand it, then you expect to be able to get your message across to the president or senator or state assemblyman.
It takes a strong will for a politician to remain true to the ideal that if he just keeps voting his conscience based on the best interests of his community, then the support will follow. If one side has all the “access,” then it’s easy to rationalize that whatever’s good for the (casino industry, mining, labor union, etc.) must be good for Nevada.
What’s not so tough, though, is to realize what’s going on when somebody hands you free tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, for example. If they can’t figure that one out, then their moral compass is on the blink.
Journalism ethics came up this week when two television stations broadcast photographs taken inside the apartment where two Carson City children were found starving.
The photos were made by investigators as evidence. They were accidentally copied onto a computer disk, which was then given to a Sacramento TV reporter. He shared them with a Reno station affiliated with the same network.
When contacted by Appeal reporter F.T. Norton, the Sacramento reporter said he didn’t realize there had been a mix-up. He just thought the sheriff was being especially cooperative with the media.
I think that’s a bit disingenuous, but why not call the sheriff and ask him if he really intended to release crime-scene photos? As for the Reno station, KOLO’s Ed Pearce did call Sheriff Kenny Furlong and decided to air the photos anyway.
They disagree over whether Furlong asked him not to run them. I don’t think that matters much. KOLO still needed to make a decision whether it was going to broadcast photos it received by mistake.
Hard-nosed journalism says you run with what you’ve got, and let the consequences fall where they may. But I don’t think journalists can operate that way. In fact, we don’t operate that way.
I make decisions every day on what gets into the newspaper and what doesn’t, and I know well how far-reaching those consequences can be. A local television news program has been regularly airing the name of the 16-year-old girl who is a victim in the starvation case; the Appeal has not printed her name.
Obviously, we know her name. We could print it. Some would argue that it’s our obligation to publish all the news, and not to withhold it. I can’t say the Appeal will never publish her name, because there’s always the possibility that circumstances may change.
But our moral compass tells us that it would be wrong to publish her name. It tells us clearly that we could do more damage to an innocent little girl. It tells us to think about the consequences first and the news second.
n Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1221.