Friday, May 22, 2009

Shades of Gray: Personal Life Clouds Ethical Decision-Making

Taylor Randall

The Paper tells the story of Henry Hackett and his struggle to be a good editor of The New York Sun, a daily newspaper. Between interviewing at a different paper, financial struggles, a pregnant wife and newsroom drama, the film is a chaotic comedy.

The plot centers around a double homicide and the press’ coverage of the investigation. Two young black males have been taken into custody, but their involvement in the crime hasn’t been substantiated. Hackett recognizes the need to think about repercussions of publishing stories. A slanted story could reignite racial tensions and damage the reputations of the men. Hackett stands up to his peers at the paper and argues for further investigation and cautiously worded headlines and stories until more information is known.

While Hackett takes a few ethical missteps throughout, he remains dedicated to the truth of the story and the integrity of his paper. I felt the most valuable lesson of the movie was that important publishing decisions should be made objectively, by clearly evaluating all of the stakeholders and issues. Unfortunately these ethical calls must be made by fallible people. They are not static. They do not occur in a vacuum and are affected by an array of factors.

The reporters’ salaries that were at stake during the movie were one influential factor, as well as the cost of pushing back the printing ($12,000 for each half-hour after deadline) and the loss incurred by stopping the presses to reprint a different cover. The constant chaos of the newsroom made it a difficult work environment and the personal lives of the reporters impacted (often, inhibited) their personal work abilities and added to the office politics at the Sun.

What the film demonstrates is the importance of relating our course curriculum to the real world as often as possible. By drawing solid ethical boundaries in as many hypothetical situations as possible, we as journalists can better prepare ourselves for the unknown decisions we may face. And these dilemmas are almost guaranteed. Alicia Clark is redeemed in the end when she steps outside of her personal life and evaluates her options and consequences as objectively as possible.

Separating such a decision from the rest of oneself is difficult, but it is a skill that improves with practice, and remaining dedicated to one’s values is the first step.

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