Learning from the Pros: Media Ethics as Experienced by Those Implementing Them

While journalists can learn a lot about making ethical decisions from taking classes, they learn the most about their own ethical codes from their experiences. In Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, a collection of essays written by a host of prominent journalists, editors Mark Kramer and Wendy Call present readers with the kind of wisdom that can only really be gained with field experience. Discussing subject matter ranging from researching and reporting to finalizing a product, this anthology provides readers with tips and advice on how to handle difficult situations that journalists encounter on the job. Specifically, these writers focus on differentiating between fact and fiction, being honest and intervening in the lives of sources and the ethical questions that arise in doing so.

When writing narrative journalism, a reporter is trying to tell a story. Because of this emphasis on a story, the idea of presenting only concrete facts is replaced by presenting something that will interest readers. In his essay “The Line between Fact and Fiction,” Roy Peter Clark states that there are two main principles separating fact from fiction: “Do not add. Do not deceive.” (Kramer and Call 166). In this case, ethical responsibility falls directly on the actor who, in this case, is the reporter. He must find the balance between a transcendental truth, an impossible thing to achieve, and complete fiction. In this way, one is seeking an Aristotle “golden mean” solution. Reasonably speaking, this can be achieved through fair and accurate reporting that gathers and presents as much information as is necessary to create a holistic image.

Clark advises that reporters should “avoid using anonymous sources except in cases where the source is especially vulnerable and the news is of great import” (Kramer and Call 167). This advice can be taken in two different ways. One can see it as a very deontological rule that is meant to be followed. In this way, it is seen as something all people should do, a kind of categorical imperative that Immanuel Kant would adopt. On the other hand, if a person sees this as a tool for case by case consideration, it becomes more teleological and focuses on the consequences rather than just a set of rules. Decisions made regarding anonymous sources can have a huge impact on the credibility and trustworthiness of a source. In some ways, anonymity allows for a more flexible version of the facts if readers are not given a way to verify the information presented to them. In this way, anonymity is another important consideration when it comes to drawing a line between fact and fiction.

Even more important than the line between fact and fiction is the consideration of honesty in a story. One of the biggest factors in looking at honesty is the question of how much information and context is needed in order to be honest with the reader without exploiting the sources. Walt Harrington points out that “journalists have multiple constituencies” (Kramer and Call 170) in his essay “Toward and Ethical Code for Narrative Journalists.” In one instance, Harrington changed the focus of a story on a family whose son had committed suicide. After speaking to parents and siblings, he found that the latter group had said many things they didn’t want published. To account for this, he opted to write a story in which the siblings were barely mentioned and the focus was on the parents. He said he told an honest story, just not a complete one. In this way, he applied what appears to be very humanistic ethics. His choice of honesty was very subjective and had existential elements to it. He made the ethical decision that faced him into a very personal one and stood behind his decision.

In another instance where honesty was a serious consideration, Sonia Nazario details the time she wrote “Enrique’s Journey” in her essay “Dealing with Danger: Protecting Your Subject and Your Story.” Here, Nazario discusses choosing not to publish Enrique’s last name so as to prevent Immigration and Naturalization Services from being able to find him easily after he crossed the United States-Mexico border to meet up with his mother in North Carolina. She said that “to avoid changing people’s lives, we might have to withhold some information from our readers” (Kramer and Call 180). In this case, Enrique and his mother were not punished for sharing their story with a reporter by being arrested and deported due to information in the published story. In a way, the principle of utility can be applied to this situation. The only difference from the normal application of the utility principle is that here, the group being protected is Enrique and his mother rather than the public at large. To Nazario, being honest was important, but so was protecting her source.

Taking care of sources is important, but journalists must wrestle with how much protection they can offer and in what forms it may manifest itself.  Anne Hull, in “A Dilemma of Immersion Journalism,” recounts a time when she was working with a Kentucky family about to lose the benefits of welfare that they had been receiving. During one visit, the family’s baby was running a high fever and needed to go to the hospital. Hull recounts her actions in the following way:

If I, an accidental visitor, solved their problem, then it would no          longer be a true story. As a newspaper reporter, changing their situation didn’t seem appropriate.” (Kramer and Call 183)

Eventually, Hull said the situation was resolved when they managed to obtain gas money to take their daughter to the hospital. Here, Hull made her decision in a way that aligns with Sissela Bok’s philosophy. She considered her responsibilities to both her story and the family, weighed her options and how intervening would affect her story and talked the situation through with her photographer. By taking these steps, she was able to make what she felt was the right decision and set a standard rule for herself about intervening in this family’s life.

Jacqui Banaszynski experienced a similar ethical dilemma. In her essay “Stories Matter,” she recalls traveling to an Ethiopian refugee camp to report on the situation there. Because she appeared to the people as a foreigner, they assumed she was a doctor and begged her to help their sick children. She said the situation left her feeling “ashamed of [her] small and temporary hunger, [her] selfish fears” (Kramer and Call 4). While she had a desire to intervene, there was not much she could do for these hurting people. What she realized she could do was tell their stories, sharing their plight with the world and attempting to spur people to action. This decision fits nicely into the framework of Mill’s utilitarianism because she did the greatest good she could for the greatest number of people by giving others a reason to offer aid. In this way, her indirect intervention was more valuable than anything she could have accomplished directly.

Every decision a reporter makes involves some form of an ethical balance. From decisions made while reporting to choices made while writing and editing, reporters must provide readers with the best work possible. Ethical decisions involve differentiating between fact and fiction, being honest and intervening in the lives of sources in ways that some people find very difficult. By considering the philosophies discussed in media ethics and personal experience, journalists can make fair and balanced ethical decision that reflect their values and help them to develop a code by which they can live and work.


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