Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ethical Decisions: Blurred Lines Become Clear

Laurie Ewart

Who Do You Trust?

Before I began my college career I was a very naive high school student who believed most of the information that was delivered by news sources. I didn't see any reason that a news outlet would alter truthful information. That would be silly, right? Wrong.

                                   Photo from http://www.sree.net/teaching/lateditors.html           

For instance the photo above is one we have discussed in my J3200 ethics class with Professor Rogus. The top photo is a combination of each of the bottom photos. As you can see, the top image conveys a completely different image compared to the others. If I were asked what was occurring in the top picture I would easily say that the soldier was warning or threatening the man with a young child in his hands. As journalists we should never create an image so that we have a good story. Sadly "seeing is believing" doesn't really hold true in the news world today. Events like this are the exact reason the public hesitates to trust journalists. 

Yes, there are some news outlets that intentionally report information on a bias (the sources that are not credible). But, there are also great news sources that focus on giving their audience unbiased factual information. These news outlets are picking journalists' reputations up out of the dirt.

Unfortunately some ethical decisions that journalists face aren't as black and white as, "Do I alter this picture, or not?"

Difficult Decisions

Although many outside people do not see it, being a journalist is an extremely demanding job. On top of the the every day tasks of finding sources, conducting interviews, writing stories and so on, we are constantly under public scrutiny. Every move we make is examined by the critical eye of society.

Conflicts of interests are a huge problem within the journalism industry. The Los Angeles Times ran a story in 2002 that focused on just that.

"It was a lovely eulogy, heartfelt and warm, that Anna Song gave at a public memorial service for two girls who were kidnapped and murdered in Oregon City, Ore. She was tender, she was compassionate, and there was no cause to question her sincerity. Only her judgement."- L.A. Times

As a journalist, Song's responsibility was to stay impartial because she was covering this story. It is very obvious that she did not. This is the perfect example of a conflict on interest. On a personal level Song became attached to the girls and emotionally connected to the story. On a professional level Song needed to never become emotionally involved with the story. She completely crossed the professional line by speaking at their funeral.

Solving the Problems

Public trust is the most valued item from a journalist’s perspective. Without it, we might as well stop working because we could produce an excellent piece but it will have no impact if the public doesn't trust us. So how do we gain their trust? Be transparent. Let them see every move we are making and explain why we are doing so. One of my professors always said, "Tell me how you feel and explain why you feel that way." He believes the "why" was the most important part. If we can't provide a valid reason, it's pointless.

As far as conflicts of interest go, I feel that it is our responsibility as journalists to recognize a conflict of interest and take it upon ourselves to step away from the situation. It may not be what we want, but it could save our career in the long run. Sometimes journalists don't believe there is a conflict of interest, but all that matters is if the public does. If the public perceives a conflict of interest, there is a conflict of interest. By not removing yourself from the situation you risk losing the public's trust.

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